short takes: fly on the wall

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sun Apr 4 20:16:57 UTC 2010

OED on "fly on the wall":

    i. fly on the wall:    (a) an unperceived observer; one who is
able to overhear discussions, etc., without being observed or
involved;    (b) Cinemat., a film-making technique in which events are
presented realistically by observing rather than by directing the
action; freq. attrib.; cf. CINÉMA-VÉRITÉ.

1949 N. MITFORD Love in Cold Climate I. vi. 61, I had been throwing an
occasional glance in their direction, wondering what it could all be
about and wishing I could be a fly on the wall to hear them. 1971 A.
SAMPSON New Anat. Brit. xii. 239, I spent a week inside the
department, overhearing committees and meetings as a fly on the wall.
1983 Listener 10 Feb. 8/3 The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ technique, so
successful elsewhere, would not overcome this problem. 1985 M. R. D.
MEEK Split Second vi. 38 ‘What did you wheedle out of Maggie?’
‘Well..she was no fly on the wall, but there have to be letters,
documents, papers to be typed.’ 1986 City Limits 12 June 23 This is a
film that has tried hard not to impinge its identity on its subject,
using a fly on the wall approach.

This is off by a few years. First, the unambiguous (1920).
Convict B14; By R K Weekes, 1920.
Chapter 5. Fly on the Wall. pp. 34 [title], 36.
> But what marked Lettice off from other people was her passion for self-obliteration. Most of us in our hearts love to fill the center of the stage. Lettice was miserable there. She liked to be the fly on the wall.
Chapter 24. The First Round. p. 209
> Gardiner threw himself down on his bare plank bed. "O Lord !" he said with half a chuckle and half a groan. "Oh, Lettice, it's a pity you weren't the fly on the wall, I think you'd have enjoyed the scene. ..."

Then, a bit more ambiguous, but still solid (1908).
Odd, or even? By Adeline Dutton Train Whitney, 1908
p. 69
> But "things ain't never as you count on," Mother Pemble said to herself. "He's got that ninety-nine year an' six days so set in his mind that he 'll slip up in one of the seventies yet, while he 's a lookn' forrud to it. An' if /there/ ain't a cretur surprised, there never was one. I 'd like to be a fly on the wall in t' other world, to see him com in !"
> All the flies in Egypt could not have been in all the places where Mother Pemble had wished herself "on the wall" in that wise.
Meanwhile, she was, as a fly on the wall, in the "east settin'-room,"
with the big seckerterry," against the opposite wall, or rather
against the door into the front passage of the house, which she would
have closed in that way when she first took to her bed and her
imprisonment here.
p. 70
> "O, I d'know, yer turnin' things over all the time, an' ye ain't bound to nobody. Care'line, she ain't got the curiosity of a miskeeter. Not half," she emended, as the excess of her illustration occurred to her. "I'd like to be a fly on the wall up there over that old seckerterry."
p. 78
> "Ye 'd like to be a fly on the wall, would n't ye ?" retorted the deacon, rising up and rolling forward the secretary front again, and turning the key, shutting and locking the deep drawer also, as he folded back the desk-lid.

Unambiguously different metaphor.

The American Dialect Society -

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