Friday’s Phrase – Mind Your Own Beeswax

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.

This week’s phrase:          “mind your own beeswax”

‘Mind your own beeswax’ or ‘it’s none of your beeswax’ are common phrases, although their use has declined. You may still hear them being shouted by six-year-olds on the school playground and I still hear it occasionally from adults.

Current accepted meaning:

Informal Retort

  1. An admonishment to tend to your own affairs; respect another’s privacy.

“This has nothing to do with you, mind your own beeswax.”

Historical Recorded Use:

One theory believes that the phrase, ‘mind your own business’, is of direct biblical derivation. Though something similar appears in the bible, where St. Paul tells the church of Thessaloniki about this manner of living in his instructions as a way of Christian life (I Thessalonians 4:11), most theologians do not believe this theory. The original Greek phrase is πράσσειν τὰ ἴδια, which translates as ‘manage yourself’, and that seems quite a leap to get to the modern version.

The first record of ‘mind your own beeswax’ actually appears in 1929 in a children’s book and, though sources are scant to give the title or author of this reference, there is corroborative evidence of its use as slang in the 1930s.

 Etymology:

There is a popular story that says, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, women who suffered from disfiguring marks left by small pox used beeswax to smooth out their complexion. One suggested theory is that if someone got too close or was staring too long, a woman would say ‘mind your own beeswax’, meaning, ‘stop staring at mine.’ Another is that the beeswax would start to melt if a woman sat too close to the fire, and their companions would have to tell them to ‘mind their own beeswax’, which was dripping off their chins.

Although beeswax is still a common ingredient in beauty products today, there is no evidence that it was applied in such a way as to be highly noticeable or capable of melting off their faces. If your options were blemishes or have the appearance your face is melting, why would you ever choose the latter? It is more likely they used another trick of the time, the use of face powder made from lead flakes, which would have covered up their scars but wasn’t exactly beneficial to their health.

There is another theory involving 18th century candle making, but it holds little water as, by the mid-18th century, beeswax was being commonly replaced by animal fat in candle making.

One etymologist, Mark Forsyth, has noted that the word ‘beeswax’ was slang for ‘tedious bore’ in the 19th century. Therefore, the phrase ‘mind your own beeswax’ might in fact be ‘mind your own, beeswax’. That is, ‘nose out, you bore’. However, Forsyth admits that a substitution theory carries a lot of weight too, since the words ‘business’ and ‘beeswax’ sound quite similar and he had no reference of written use to show punctuation substantiating ‘beeswax’ as the common noun of the phrase.

Conclusion:

There is no evidence to suggest that ‘beeswax’ is anything more than a funny, and convenient, substitution for the word ‘business.’ The phrase ‘mind your own business’ has been around for a long time and is incredibly straightforward. It is a phrase to tell someone to pay attention to their own affairs rather than yours. It’s thought that changing ‘business’ to ‘beeswax’ was likely an effort to soften the phrase, making it sound a little less harsh in retort.

Though the etymology does not provide us a quaint old-timey story of origin, the advent of replacing similar sounding words in common phrases, though rarer, is nothing new.

Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

The same incorrect theories about 18th or 19th century origins of the phrase claimed that beeswax-covered women were also the reason for the phrase ‘crack a smile’. Once a woman had applied her beeswax, she wouldn’t be able to smile, or the wax would crack around her lips. Again, this isn’t true. ‘Crack a smile’ is related to ‘crack a joke’, which dates to the 1300s and is simply a figure of speech. It doesn’t allude to a physical crack in anything, least of all the fictional wax masks of 19th century women.

Bonus Bonus Phrase: (provided for a small fee)

Supposedly, the wax dripping off women’s faces also led to the phrase ‘losing face’. This phrase is derived from a Chinese expression about moral character and social prestige that was loosely translated into ‘lose face’ in the 1800s. It has nothing to do with wax.

Comments
2 Responses to “Friday’s Phrase – Mind Your Own Beeswax”
  1. Jim Borden says:

    some graphic images came to mind while I was reading this! thanks for the info.

  2. Busybeewax says:

    Thanks for sharing this fun fact

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: