fly by night

Posted by Masakim on May 15, 2002

In Reply to: Fly by night posted by ESC on May 15, 2002

: : where does the phrase fly by night come from

: From the archives:

: FLY BY NIGHT - I heard this phrase used recently to refer to fly-by-night contractors, people who come into a tornado-ravaged area, do some shoddy repair work, then leave the area. "Fly-by-night was originally an ancient term of reproach to an old woman, signifying she is a witch, according to Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. From a witch flying about at night on a broom, the term was applied, at the beginning of the 19th century, to anyone who flies hurriedly from a recent activity, usually a business activity and usually at night - someone who is a swindler and whose activities are fraudulent. The first fly-by-night operator recorded in English makes his appearance in Thomas Love Peacock's novel 'Maid Marion' , a parody of the Robin Hood legend in which a character refers to Maid Marion and the outlaw: 'Would you have her married to an old fly-by-night that accident made an earl and nature a deer-stealer?' 'Fly-by-night has also been, in British slang, prostitute and a prostitute's vagina." From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1977.)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "fly by night" was indeed used in England in the 1800's as a term for a type of light, usually two-wheeled, carriage. The "fly" (as they were more commonly known) was originally drawn or pushed by a man, who was later, mercifully and probably more efficiently, replaced by a horse. That "fly by night," however, has no real connection with "fly by night" in the sense we usually hear it, meaning something done surreptitiously or someone who operates in a dishonest fashion. The first use of this sense in the early 1800's was quite literal -- a "fly by night" was a deadbeat tenant who vacated his lodgings in the middle of the night to avoid the wrath of his landlord or other creditors. From there "fly by night" was expanded to include just about any sort of disreputable behavior, especially if the malefactor skedaddled as soon as his foul deed was done.
From The Word Detective (May 25, 1998)