Is The Only Good Fly A Dead Fly?

When I look for a video on YouTube, I also get a vertical row of additional videos on the right-hand side of my screen:

Most/all of these videos have no relevance to what I was searching for, and I have no idea how the YouTube whatchamacallits select these videos to accompany my search results.

Normally I ignore the videos, but one of the above caught my eye and sparked my curiosity:

I like stories about art, and the headline got me wondering…

Why does that lady have a fly on her head?

My mind then jumped to a story from 2020 about a fly landing on the head of then-vice president Mike Pence:

Which then brought to mind the expression…

Which then got me wondering – how many other idioms include the word “fly,” meaning the insect, not (for example) a “fly” in baseball?

And then that got me wondering – why do we use flies in idioms when flies are such nasty, filthy, maggot-laying, disease-carrying pests?

Which then got me wondering – do flies deserve their bad reputation?

This is how my mind sometimes works.

Sometimes it’s scary.

But sometimes it leads me on a journey of learning new things, and I love that.

So here’s some of what I’ve learned, if you care to join me on the journey.

Why Does This Lady Have A Fly On Her Head?

There are plenty of articles online that attempt to answer that question, including this one:

The official title of this painting is Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, and it was painted around 1470 by an unknown artist. It resides in the National Gallery in London.

Why-the-fly theories from the articles include:

  • The fly might have been included as a symbolic element.  Flies have been used in art as a symbol of mortality, and the woman is holding a forget-me-not flower, so it’s possible that this artist is using the fly as an expression of remembrance for this woman after she has died.
  • Flies were sometimes seen as a symbol of sinfulness, so its presence might be intended to ward against evil and illness.
  • The artist added the fly looking as realistic as possible to puzzle the viewer, to make them wonder if a fly has landed on the painting. 
  • The artist may be showing off his skill in creating a three-dimensional image on a flat panel.
  • It’s a joke – the fly has been tricked into thinking this is a real headdress, fooled by the painter’s mastery.

The answer to, Why does this lady have a fly on her head?

No one knows for sure.

What Was The Fly Seen Round The World?

The painting led me to remember former vice president Mike Pence and the fly on his head (pictured) during the only vice-presidential debate of the 2020 election.

I discovered I wasn’t the first person whose brain had made that leap:

“After this week’s vice-presidential debate in the United States, the fly that landed on Vice President Mike Pence’s head was more of a sensation than the details of the debate – at least on social media.”

The author, an art historian, goes on to talk about why-the-fly-in-the-painting theories, and concludes with, “The point is that flies still remind us of unpleasant things.”

And yes, watching Pence suck up to Trump for four years was unpleasant – sickening, actually – but I must give him credit for showing some spine on January 6 and not caving in to Trump’s relentless bullying. 

Segueing to…

How Many Idioms Include The Word “Fly”?

“No flies on us” is an old British idiom used to describe someone who’s quick to understand things and not easily fooled:  “Yeah, he’s a smart one – no flies on him!”

There are many “fly” (as in insect) idioms – here are a few you may have heard/used:

The only fly in the ointment in an otherwise perfect wedding was that the bride tripped when walking down the aisle.

I wish I’d been a fly on the wall at the meeting when you said that!

Yes, you’ve got some money issues, but filing for bankruptcy would be killing a fly with an elephant gun.

So you (well, I) can’t help but wonder…

Why So Many “Fly” Idioms When We Think Flies Are So Disgusting?

To ascertain just how disgusting flies are I needed to look no further than this website:

Orkin, an American company that provides residential and commercial pest control services, has been around since 1901.

So I figure they know a thing or two about flies:

“House flies…create an eyesore in homes and often fly in people’s faces or hover over food.  While these behaviors are frustrating on their own, these insects also carry a variety of bacteria and other disease-causing organisms.

“With their diet of feces, trash, rotting produce, and spoiled meats, house flies constantly pick up pathogens.  The insects then carry these germs and leave them behind wherever they land.  The transfer process only takes a matter of seconds.

“In addition to spreading the bacteria that cling to their bodies, these flies often vomit and defecate where they land and feed.  These pests often gather in kitchens and buzz around food, so this behavioral tendency adds to the potential spread of house fly diseases.”

The article goes on to suggest that house flies can carry at least 65 illnesses that infect people including food poisoning, dysentery, diarrhea, anthrax, cholera, salmonella, tuberculosis and typhoid.

After reading this I was feeling borderline queasy, but I still wanted to know…

Do Flies Deserve Their Bad Reputation?

I say flies do deserve their bad reputation, but in the interest of equal time, I decided to discover if flies have any redeeming qualities.

These folks say flies do:

“Although they so often share an antagonistic relationship with humans as an annoyance or a potential carrier of diseases, these insects also serve many important ecological roles. 

“They are the second most common pollinators, behind only bees.  They help to keep the environment free of decomposing animal flesh.  And as a common subject of genetic research, they also help to advance the frontiers of human knowledge.”

And according to this 2019 article:

Dr. Erica McAlister, who was interviewed for the article, is the Senior Curator of Diptera at Great Britain’s Natural History Museum.

“Diptera” being “a large order of winged or rarely wingless insects including the housefly, mosquitoes, midges, and gnats.”

Dr. McAlister thinks flies are “the best animals on the planet.”

The article goes on to say,

“Perhaps most compelling is the direct role they have in our lives.  Although few of us realise it, without flies and other decomposers we’d be up to our eyeballs in poo and dead bodies.”

(Those Brits do have a way with words, don’t they?)

“‘Their larvae are cleaning up after us and the adults are pollinating for us.  This is why you’ve got to love a fly,’ enthuses Erica.”

Well, “love a fly” is a stretch even for my imagination, but I’ll now concede that flies do have some redeeming qualities.

Just as I thought I’d completed my why-the-fly journey, one last question occurred to me:

Why Is The Opening Of Men’s Pants Called A “Fly”?

Any guesses?

I had none, so back to the internet I went.

And found Unzipping the Origin of “Fly” by Rob Kyff at

Fly, derived from the Old English flowan (to flow), has acquired many meanings over the centuries, e.g., a winged insect, a baseball hit high into the air, the space above a theater stage, and a late-1960s word for cool.

Fly also came to mean something attached by one edge, like a flag or banner flying from a rope or pole.  With this meaning in mind, 19th-century tailors used the term fly for a flap of cloth attached at one side to cover an opening in a garment.”

Kyff also noted,

“Interestingly, fly seems to be used exclusively for the opening on MEN’s trousers.  Has one woman ever told another that her fly (or barn door) is open?  I think not.”

And Google Books brought me Why Rattlesnakes Rattle…And 250 Other Things You Should Know by Valeri Helterbran, who says, in part:

“…a fly is not the buttons or zipper but, more correctly, the flap of material used to hide these mechanisms of closure.  The distinction has been all but lost, and the flap and fasteners are now almost universally called a fly.”

So – my why-the-fly query is now at least somewhat satisfied.

But now that I think about it…

Am I about to start on another journey?

Why Does A Rattlesnake Rattle?

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