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What is the origin of the expression, "No flies on him"?

Question #22233. Asked by tjoebigham.

Friar Tuck
Answer has 2 votes
Friar Tuck

Answer has 2 votes.
Flies are ubiquitous to Australia, especially in the country, so much so that a swish with your right hand across the face to ward off the little buzzards is often referred to as 'the great Australian Salute.'
Flies are so common that some refer to them as the 'Australian National Bird.'

At a picnic or barbecue flies can be a nuisance warranting the liberal use of insect repellent and the covering of all food items. Occasionally the swish of a fly swatter may be heard. We've even developed a special hanging paper strip tarred with a gooey glue called Fly Paper to catch 'the little blitters.'

In the 'Bush' many Stockmen attach corks with strings to the front brim of their hats which tangle in their face keeping the flies away. This clever trick lead to the expression 'no flies on him' refering to person with smarts.

Sep 02 2002, 8:17 PM
Senior Moments
Answer has 4 votes
Currently Best Answer
Senior Moments

Answer has 4 votes.

Currently voted the best answer.
Flies may not make the most loyal pets, but there's no denying that they have landed with all six (eight?) feet in the English language. Their name comes from the Old English 'fleogan' (to fly), the same source as our verb 'to fly.' And fly they do -- the problem seems to be that they also land where they're not wanted. One of the earliest fly-based figures of speech, dating back at least to the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, is 'fly in the ointment,' which means a small, disagreeable detail that ruins the enjoyment of something nice, like a jelly doughnut. In the 19th century, to say that 'there are no flies on him' of somebody meant that the person was alert and active, probably by allusion to cattle that move around enough to deny flies a landing place.

But when flies do land, they often do so in massive numbers, giving us the simile 'like flies,' meaning 'in huge numbers.' Shakespeare, in Henry VI, Part 2 (1595), wrote 'The common people swarm like summer flies,' and it would not be inappropriate to say that Americans are, as of this writing, watching Regis Philbin 'like flies.' Thus, although flies are indeed fragile creatures and seem to die easily, 'dying like flies' or 'dropping like flies' simply refers to death in huge numbers ('like flies'), whether of people or animals, not to any imagined similarity between human and fly mortality.


Sep 02 2002, 8:22 PM
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