The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was first published at the end of the eighteenth century, and given that the current health crisis is giving too much time to read books, I thought I’d pick a daily word from it until I got bored….
I’m not entirely sure that I’ve given this phrase much thought, but I think I assumed it meant someone who just did a flit overnight to avoid their responsibilities. But, logically, there’s an obvious meaning to this phrase and I suspect many others would have worked it out. The dictionary’s definition makes it entirely clear:
“You old fly-by-night; an ancient term of reproach to an old woman, signifying that she was a witch, and alluding to the nocturnal excursions attributed to witches, who were supposed to fly abroad to their meetings, mounted on brooms”.
And, of course, it was abuse or indeed a challenge, to old women by suggesting that they were witches and would go on their broomsticks at night. The meaning today is wider, meaning someone fraudulent and dishonest, but its original meaning is quite captivating.