Tag Archives: John Bee

What Is The Origin Of (274)?…


The description, fly-by-night, is rarely, if ever, used in a positive sense. It conveys the sense of someone who performs a shoddy job or service, takes the money and disappears. There is an element of untrustworthiness or unreliability about them, especially when the term is used in conjunction with business matters.

The original usage of the word was to denote someone who actually did, or at least according to folk tradition, fly during the night, a witch and by extension, a pejorative term for an old woman. As always, the inestimable Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788 provides us with a fulsome definition; “You old fly-by-night; an ancient term of reproach to an old woman, signifying that she was a witch and alluding to the nocturnal excursions attributed to witches, who were supposed to fly abroad to their meetings, mounted on brooms”. Quite how ancient he does not hazard to guess, but as the identification of witches was particularly commonplace in the 17th and 18th centuries perhaps it dates to around that time.

Perhaps inevitably, the term was extended to include other types of women of ill-repute, in particular sex workers and, by extension, that part of their anatomy they traded. These definitions were provided by John Farmer and William Henley in their Slang and its Analogues Past and Present in 1893. They add other usages of the term including “a noctambulist for business or for pleasure; ie a burglar or a common spreester”. Would that noctambulist and spreester return to our daily vocabulary.

The idea that a fly-by-night was someone who was a ne’er do well who is quick to disappear appears to have been in circulation during the 19th century. It may have originated in sporting circles, appearing in John Bee’s Sportsman’s Slang, published in 1825. There Bee, the pseudonym of John Badcock, defines fly-by-night as “run-aways who leave empty houses”. It is tempting to speculate that they were forced into this rather desperate act on account of debts incurred with bookmakers. Farmer and Henley also include this definition – “a defaulting debtor; one who shoots the moon. Also applied to the act” – and, helpfully, provides a gloss on to shoot the moon; “to shoot (or bolt or shove) the moon; to remove furniture by night to prevent seizure for rent”. In other words, doing what we would call a moonlight flit.

There was, though, a third strand of meaning to the term, a carriage. The Morning Post in introducing the term to its readership on April 9, 1818, felt it necessary to define it and also indicate the part of the country in which it was used; “a species of carriage, which, in Gloucestershire, goes by the name of Fly by Night”. What we know as a fly was a light horse-drawn carriage used for public hire and was certainly on the streets of Brighton by 1816. Perhaps the good folk of Gloucestershire were more au fait with the latest modes of transport than others.

The Oxford English Dictionary in 1897 went on to explain the development of this vehicular term; “the name was gradually extended to any one-horse covered carriage, as a cab or hansom, let out on hire”. It was abbreviated in this context to the better-known fly which the OED noted “is generally applied to a vehicle hired from a livery-stable, and not plying for hire”.

Modern usage is restricted to the idea of fleeing the scene, like the defaulting tenant.    

What Is The Origin Of (213)?…

Three sheets to the wind

Now that the holiday season is well and truly behind us, some of us, no doubt, can recall that we over-indulged a little bit and may even, on occasion, have been three sheets to the wind. By this we mean very drunk but where did this phrase come from?

It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that it is nautical but what is fascinating is that the sheets referred to are not sails, as I had assumed, but ropes or chains, fixed to the lower corners of sails and used to fasten them in place. Technically, there is only one sheet to a sail, any other ropes fastened to it used for adjusting it to take account of wind direction being known as lines. Strictly, therefore, the expression would describe a three-masted ship where all its sails were loosely tied. The consequence of loose sails blowing about in the wind is that the sails would flap and make the vessel lurch around, rather like an inebriated matelot.

The next surprise, to me at least, is that the original phrase seems to have been three sheets in the wind. One of the very earliest examples in print appeared in Niles’ Weekly Register of 2nd May 1812 and recorded Englishman Thomas Ashe’s experiences in Kentucky where the hospitality was generous and the liquor strong. He noted, “it must not be wondered at that the poor, untutored, savage Kentuckyan got more than two-thirds drunk, that is, as the sailors term it, three sheets in the wind and the fourth shivering, before the dinner was ended.

From this citation we can perhaps deduce two things; first, that it was a phrase that peppered the language of many a salty sea dog and that there was a gradation of sheets to describe the varying states of inebriation. That the latter may be the case is illustrated by an observation from the Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, published in 1815, for the 26th September 1813 when the worthy gentleman found himself in Kentucky too; “the tavern keepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be: they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire!

And providing further evidence is this passage from Catherine Ward’s novel, The Fisher’s Daughter, published in 1824; “Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure.” And Robert Louis Stevenson has the one sheet variant in Treasure Island (1883), Long John Silver saying, “Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober; “

Another early example, again American, appeared in the edition of the Genius of Liberty for 26th August 1817; “he was about three sheets in the wind, that is to say a little intoxicated and began to talk loud and swear.”  The gloss perhaps suggests the phrase was not so well known in Virginia. It was not until 1821 that the phrase appeared this side of the Atlantic in Pierce Egan’s Real Life of London; “Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.” That the earliest examples are American by origin doesn’t necessarily mean the phrase was an Americanism. Ashe and Astbury were English by origin and the phrase was part of nautical argot.

By 1823 the phrase was sufficiently well established to earn an entry in a lexicon, John Bee’s Slang, A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-ton and the Varieties of Life. There he defines it as “naval, but naturalized ashore, and means drunk, but capable of going along – like a ship which has three sheets braced – main, mizzen, and foresail.” Interestingly, he makes the mistake of confusing sheet for a sail.

To the wind didn’t appear in print until 1894 in the New Year’s Day edition of the Pennsylvania State University Free Lance; “..he espied two old friends approaching, one of them three sheets to the wind and the other piloting him..” Why the change is unclear aand from a nautical perspective, they are opposite ways of proceeding. Whatever the reason, this is the version that has stuck.

After all that, I need a drink. Perhaps I will soon be one sheet in the wind!

What Is The Origin Of (109)?…


A man of straw

It is a long time, if I ever truly was, since I could have been described as a man of straw, a phrase we use to describe someone without any assets. It is often used in a judicial context when damages are being awarded against someone only for their lawyer to point out that they are a man of straw without two farthings to rub together.

In 1823 John Bee defined a man of straw in his Dictionary of the Turf as “a bill acceptor, without property – no assets”. Gambling which is the natural concomitant of horse racing is prone to leave the unsuccessful punter financially embarrassed and it is not too fanciful to think of it as bookies’ argot for someone who hasn’t the assets to back his wager. In the 17th century there was a proverb which contrasted straw with gold – “a man of straw is worth a woman of gold” – a tad sexist for sure but the sense surely is linking straw with a lack of assets. Quite how it gravitated into the court room is anyone’s guess – perhaps some lawyers or judges were patrons of the race course and adopted this colourful phrase for their own purposes.

For farmers one of the perennial battles is keeping birds and other predators from their seeds and a popular device over the ages to achieve this is to erect a scarecrow in the field which had a vaguely human form and was often stuffed with straw. Inevitably, a straw man became a synonym for a decoy or a dummy or a sham. The Return of Parnassus, the third of three plays performed in London as part of the Christmas festivities of St John’s, Cambridge and dating from between 1598 and 1602, has this marvellous line, “he braggs…of his liberalitie to schollers..but indeed he is a meere man of strawe, a great lump of drousie earth”.

Another sense soon developed, that of an artificial construct for the purposes of refuting the arguments and enhancing the power and brilliance of your own logic. In 1624 T Gataker wrote in A Discussion of the Popish Discussion of Transubstantiation “to skirmish with a man of straw of his owne making”. In Advice to the Men of Shaftesbury, printed for John Smith in 1681, we find “I rather suppose the Some that say so never were men of God’s making but mere men of straw set up by Master Bencher, for a Tryal of his own Skill in Confutation”. In describing the format of the Socratic dialogues T DeQuincey wrote in 1859 “in fact, Socrates and some man of straw or good humoured nine-pin set up to be bowled down as a matter of course”.

The phase spawned a variant, particularly common across the pond, straw man which was used to suggest an artificial opponent as in this usage in The Philosophical Review of 1895, “or, better, against a straw-man which he constructs himself…”  In more recent popular culture the most famous straw man quote appeared in the film, the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy slaps the paw of the Cowardly Lion, saying “It’s bad enough picking on a straw man, but when you go picking on poor little dogs.” Of course, the straw man refers to a scarecrow and is not used metaphorically.

More recently, the phrase is increasingly used as a compound adjective as in straw-man device or technique or issue, to describe something which has been floated to be tested and, if necessary, knocked down, a variant of our Aunt Sally.

So now we know!