short takes: fly on the wall

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sun Apr 4 20:22:55 UTC 2010

Unambiguously different metaphor (1872 and 1897)
The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Romances. Volume 8. 1898
[copyright 1897, Editorial Note: "taken from Mr. Stevenson's
dictations ... between January 1893 and October 1894" but unfinished;
chapters 31+ had been completed by Mr. Quiller-Couch]
St. Ives. Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England.
Chapter 34. Captain Colenso. p. 412
> We were weltering along in horrible forty-foot sees, over which our bulwarks tilted at times until from the companion hatchway I stared plumb into the grey sliding chasms, and felt like a fly on the wall. The /Lady Nepean/ hurled her old timbers along under close-reefed maintopsail, and a rag of a foresail only.

Scribner's Monthly. Vol. 5:2. December 1872.
A Tramp with Tyndall, p. 186
> It was the old story--slow, careful cutting of steps in a steep diagonal, the guide going ahead, hacking away in the almost perpendicular surface of the glacier wall the few inches of indentation which offer a hold to the hobnailed boots of ice climber--one from which the tyro would shrink and fall in sheer terror, or by brushed by the slightest gust, but to which the trained mountaineer clings with the tenacity, and almost in the attitude, of a fly on the wall.

Also updating the clear meaning (1917):
Good Housekeeping. February 1917.
The Albatross. By Mary Heaton Vorse. p. 25/2
> "I tell you, Nilla confided, "it's a joke on my aunt, that I'm One of Them--a child-wife, I mean. You are a child-wife, aren't you, when you're just seventeen? I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when she got my letter, telling her about it. I bet she was disappointed. ..."

I am not quite done since the search is well short of being complete,
which is why I was not trying to send it... ACK!!

In any case, there are two separate issues--1) the OED meaning can
already be antedated to 1908.
2) There appear to be at least two other uses that predate the OED
(and current) meaning--"tenaciously grasping like" and "being
distracted by" a fly on the wall. The latter even occurs in Darwin's
work. I already listed examples of the other two.

More to come.


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