blue-arsed fly noun earlier than 1970

Michael Finney submitted verifiable evidence from 1936.

The first evidence for the metaphorical blue-arsed fly in the OED entry comes from a 1970 quote attributed to the Duke of Edinburgh:

1970 Times 22 Apr. 7/3 The Duke of Edinburgh‥asked a photographer if he was getting enough pictures…  ‘You have been running around like a blue-arsed fly.’

The r-less blue-assed fly, however, is attested from at least 1932.  Why such a discrepancy? Since our original OED entry was published in 2005, we’ve discovered an earlier example of blue-arsed fly in a dictionary of slang from 1949, but we suspect there may be evidence out there that is earlier still. Can you help us find it? Real-life examples dating from before 1970 and dictionary examples from before 1949 would both be welcome.

For reference, here are the entries as currently published in OED Online:

OED Editor Fiona McPherson talks about this appeal in the video below:

Posted by OED_Editor on 27 September 2012 19.40
Comments: 78

Tags: ,

  • Hb1616

    Somerset Struben De Chair, The golden carpet, 1943; p. 51

    “The amber was still viscous and he sometimes emerged to buzz about, as someone described him, “like a blue-arsed fly in a tripe shop.” Now he showed me how to get coffee in porcelain cups.”

    • OED_Editor

      Thank you. This look like useful early evidence, but it may not be the earliest example – another comment suggests a 1936 example may be available, which we will verify.

      • Philipritchard

        Yes..alot of Father’s it seems used to use this expression! Mine included..and he was from Brixton area in London…always referred ‘like a blue bottle’….It was in the 1970′s that I heard him use it, but I think he had probably used it all his life…at least from the 40′s/50′s..

      • Philipritchard

        Hi again..it’s also interesting that the above contributer refrers to.;..in a tripe shop’…my father was a butcher and meat wholesaler..indeed I used tio work with him..and blue arsed flies are VERY common I’m afraid as they always buzz around the meat that may be stored for a while in the open…. not just the tripe!

  • Dr Ray Roberts

    My Father an Australian ex serviceman and a degree qualified geologist used that expression in the 50′s and 60′s when I was growing up. To say this expression was used first in the 70′s is a nonsense.

    Dr Ray Roberts

    • OED_Editor

      Thanks for your recollection. As the 1949 dictionary evidence mentioned in our post shows (as will the 1943 evidence provided by Hb1616, once we verify it) ‘blue-arsed fly’ certainly was used well before 1970. We are in the process of revising the entry, and are seeking to expand our documentation of its full history.

  • NJCG

    I agree with Dr Roberts below. I’m also Australian; my father is an Australian ex-serviceman (national service and Army Reserve) and lawyer. I grew up with him saying to his mates (usually when he thought we children were out of earshot) that he had been as “busy as a blue-arsed fly”. The phrase refers to the species of fly that in Australia is known as a “bluebottle”, which is hectic in its flight, especially when inside a house. So, like Dr Roberts, I would certainly attribute it to the 1950s or earlier; my sisters and I can personally attest to late 1960s onwards.

    And in the Australian slang it’s definitely “arsed” not “assed”, so it’s not an American import, either. I suspect Prince Philip was quoting what is at least Australian armed forces slang, and probably Commonwealth armed forces slang, dating back to the early- to mid-20th Century.

    • John Fletcher

      I concur. My father b 1926 in SE Victoria Australia, used to use the expression ‘running around like a blue arsed fly’ as did my mother’s father, b1898 in W Victoria.
      During the war the Duke visited Melbourne a number of times while i the RN . maybe he picked it up at local pub??

  • Derek Leeder

    I was born in the UK in 1946 and I can recall my father using this expression. My father had been in the Royal Navy throughout WW2. There may well be a link with the Duke’s naval service at this time. I believe that ratings working dress at sea included blue dungaree trousers and that officers liked to see there men “kept busy”
    I have not heard this expression used for many years.

  • OED_Editor

    Thank you – this looks like a promising lead. If nobody else manages to find anything earlier, we will check this in a copy of the book in order to verify it.

    • OED_Editor

       We have tracked down a hard copy of the 1936 edition of this book and can verify this example. Thanks!

  • ntmntmntm23 — N.T.Malden

    When I was on a Cadet Artillery Course in about 1949 (1950 at the latest) we were given the chance to record our voices (for practice). I strung together the favourite sayings of the Officer in Charge. I said, “Up Jenkins, you blue-arsed flies, and drop a brick in that bevy of Big Cheeses.” It must have been standard military usage / slang by that time.
         N.T.Malden

  • Martin

    Its is unverifiable, but the term ‘blue-arsed fly’ was in common usage in this part of Leicestershire when I was a boy (born 1948) along with such gems as ‘you don’t have the brains of a moldiwarp (mouldiwarp?)’
    To us it suggested one who hurried so much that his rear end was cold from the draught caused by the airflow over it.  And of course ‘fly’ because they are rarely seen at rest.

  • http://twitter.com/Minivet Minivet

    I couldn’t find anything earlier than Master Mariner, but I also found attestations not cited below of it in Australian phrasebooks: _Australia speaks: a supplement to “The Australian Language”_, Sidney John Baker, 1953, and _The Australian language_ by the same author, 1966. 

    I’m pretty sure this phrase is not one found in the US.

  • Hugo

    Yikes, the formatting went all wrong there! Try here for a readable copy: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/84700/antedatings-of-blue-arsed-fly/84701#84701

  • Ian Clark (Rev.)

    Absolute nonsense! The phrase was in constant use in the army when I was a National Serviceman (1954–56). The Duke probably picked it up in  the navy. I refer to ‘blue-arsed fly’.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.w.kennedy1 John W Kennedy

    To any American, the possibility of a connection with “Blue Tail Fly” does seem almost inevitable. The song is first reported ca. 1845. And the apparent connection with the RN seems to fit with it, as I suppose sailors were more likely than other Britons to have a nodding acquaintance with American low culture. All speculation, of course.

  • Darryl Francis

    I see that the ‘Dictionary of American Regional English’ has BLUE-ASSED HORNET, also BLUE HORNET, which is a wasp rather than a bluebottle.

  • Smeesteve

    This expression has been around in my mothers family for years – way before Phil came -out with it
    - yo9ur historical timeline is wrong,

  • Brian

    My father often told me off with this expression when I was running in the house in the 1950′s. This was in Gosport, England. I came to New zealand in 1959. My kiwi wife assures me that her dad often used the same words when she was a child. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the derivation, everyone has had a blowfly buzzing round trapped in the house on a summer’s day.

  • Jenny Rollo

    My Nanna – who died before I was born in 1955 – used many colourful expressions, one of which was “running around like a blue-arse fly in a tripe shop”. I don’t have written proof  of the date she used it, but you are definitely incorrect to attribute this saying to Prince Philip

  • Kipling49

    I recall hearing the blue-arsed fly in my early childhood (born1949). Inn Australian rural areas is this particular fly similar in size to a blo-fly but dangerous around stock particularly sheep as its maggots when layed at the sheep anus burrow into the animals body. So awareness of this busy busy fly was acute. It was also distinctive in colour hence the Blue..

  • Jfk

    My father, a colourful Irishman from Dublin, used the term “running around like a blue-arsed fly” for as long as i can remember.  He died in 1966 but  I remember him using the term in the late forties.

  • Jfk

    My father, a colourful Irishman from Dublin, used the term “running around like a blue-arsed fly” for as long as i can remember.  He died in 1966 but  I remember him using the term in the late forties.

  • Jock McLean

    The Australian sheep blow-fly (Lucilia cuprina) had a blue cloured abdomen. Hence the name L. cuprina derived from the Latin for copper. These flies swarm around sheep and lay eggs which develop into larvae or maggots and hence the sheep becomes “fly blown”. There is much fly activity around such sheep and hence the use of the phrase to describe when a person is busy, as they are “running around like a blue-arsed fly”. This phrase is common in rural Australia and I can remeber it being used in my childhood (b 1939), but it was in general use long before that.

  • M Turner

    I remember the comment being if fairly common usage in my family and the wider community in Australia in the late 1940′s when i was a child.

    I believe that an Australian origin makes a fair bit of sense, see previous comment by Jock McLean

  • Guest

    The saying has been around “since Adam was a pup”! My Great Aunt used to say “running around like a blue arsed fly in a pickle bottle” when I was a kid in the 50s.

  • Rtbnich

    My Father used the term in the 1960′s.  He was a Royal Marine and the Duke of Edinburgh is Captain General of the Royal Marines.  Could there be some Naval / Military link?

  • Michael

    My mother & grandmother used this phrase in the 1940s & 50s in New Zealand. Their background was English/Scottish. Another expression they used when asked where they were going ” going up the boo-eye shooting pukakas”. Where does that one come from.

  • Claire Richards

    My father used to used this expression when I was a child in the late 1950s / early 1960s (cue much disapproval from my mother).  He grew up in Welshpool in Montgomeryshire but served in the Army throught WWII.  If the expression did originate in the US, his contact with American armed forces personnel might explain how he (and others like him) came to hear and use it.

  • Jeff Worthington

    The term “blue arsed fly” has been used in Australia for many years and I can recall it’s use well prior to 1970.  I can recall both my father and grandfather (who died in 1966) using the term and other men of similar vintage doing so.  “Blue Assed Fly” sounds more American.  It is certainly a term I have used since my teenage years (I’m 64 now) and certainly never heard that Prince Philip had used the term.  It is probably a term now used more by older folk and in rural areas than in the city in Australia.  From my grandfather’s use of the term I would think it has been around for at least the past 100 years. 

  • Trisha Small

    I think this has evolved from “blue tailed fly” and dates back as far as 1850s Australia.  Robert “Billy” Barton had a famous stage act in which he impersonated and ran around the stage like a blue tailed fly.  I’ve downloaded a few newspaper articles about him if that’s any good.

    • OED_Editor

       Thank you. This sounds like an interesting earlier variant and will be worth investigating.

      • Trisha Small

        Sorry, should read Robert “Billy” Barlow

    • Chuffy

      Like in Jimmy Cracked Corn?

  • James hayton

    James Hayton.

    My parents used this term when I was a child around 65 to 70 years ago in the UK.
    Most definately not a modern term by any means. My guess would be London or Cockney origins

  • Littlethwaite

    I always thought that it was derived from the song “Jimmy Crack Corn” from 1840s were a slave is singing about the death of his master whose horse was bitten by a blue tailed fly, probably a horse fly, bucked and the master fell off and was kiled.

  • Rolyroper

     Picked up “blue-arsed fly” (sic) from my father in the 50′s, Victoria, Australia, and always understood it to mean a blow-fly as per Jock McLean.

  • Jac John

    My father (b. London 1910) frequently used the term ‘blue arsed fly’. As a child in the ’60′s I asked him what a ‘blue arsed fly’ was and he replied that it was a bluebottle and the term came from the way they’d fly haphazardly; knocking into windows etc. No documentary evidence to back it up, but I suspect this has ancient British roots – my father would never have knowingly used an ‘Americanism’.

    • Jan Cooper

      My father was born in Cheltenham in 1908 and he seems to be of the same ilk as Jac John’s father. Both my parents used the phrase for as long as I can remember. I was born in 1950 and my sister in 1938 so I would imagine she would have heard the phrase during her childhood.It describes the relentlessness of the bluebottle to a tee.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martin-Owle/818440531 Martin Owle

    Blue Bottle flies buzz around rotting flesh with seemingly no pattern; perhaps looking for the scuttiest piece of rot that they can find. Makes sense to Me.

  • Kevthebrit

    My mother has used the “Blue arsed fly” saying ever since I can remember and that is at least 60 years AND she still uses it today. She and her family all used that saying and they are from the Ireland (Cork). To them it means to “Run around doing things and getting nowhere fast”! The other funny saying they have is “Your like a fart in a cullinder” …”Confused”!

  • Hotboppincat

    My Dad used this expression, asnd so do I. My Dad is from Suffolk, I think his Father used the expression too. My Dad is now 70. ‘Fart in a Trance’ is another one

  • Kate Treaclepudding

    May I suggest that the term might originate from the printer’s boy or “fly boy” whose job it was to catch the sheets as they came off the tympan.  The fly needed to work very quickly and presumably he would need to keep clean hands and would therefore probably, being a boy, have wiped them on his rear.  No evidence I’m afraid, but it makes more sense of the term to me.

    • Raykanefer

      You may be on to something here. I was a ‘printer’s devil’ before starting my Indenture
      as a hand and machine compositor. I worked on the ‘fly’ and, yes, it is as you described–
      damned hard work. However, in Australia March Flys are small bothersome  flys that
      actually sting and seek out the unwary. Stock horses were a great source of attraction
      and the hindquarters were a particular field of employ for them …they would drive horses
      to distraction. From the thorax down they had a biueish hue. I am 70, and the ”blue-arsed
      fly’ was around in my great grandfathers day…he came from Bristol, et al, But was not
      responsible for the introduction of the species to Australia.. Blue-arsed flys in Australian
      bush lore are synonymous with ”pissants”.   

  • Chris

    song jimmy crack corn
    blue tailed fly
    simple

  • zanzara tigra

    the blue-arsed fly is Calliphora erythrocephala Eig.

    In Tanzania it was common to call them mzungu flies from the Swahili word Mzungu meaning a European (ie white man). 

    To many Tanzanians we seemed to be dashing around to no effect.

  • Simon Murphy

    I always thought the phrase referred to the flies (that have blue bodies and that look blue in the sunlight) that buzz around the rear end of cattle. They are usually in a high state of agitation and move at speed. Simon Murphy

  • DonW

    My early memories of the expression are “buzzing around like a blue-arsed fly” which I always took to relate to a person acting in the style of the fly we called the blue-bottle fly from its big shiny blue body. I am sure it is pre 2nd world war probably a lot earlier as as it was used by my parents born 1909/1913 and my grandmother.

    • Roy

      Yes! I too remember my parents using the expression circa 1940′s Another expression my father used that had similar connotations but was a little more humerous, at least in my view, which was said of a person who kept frequently coming and going for short periods of time. “He’s in and out like a fart in a collander”.

  • Drempels

    I would say it comes from Cockney ryming slang. They’re commonly called bluebottles and zig-zag around all over the place. They do have a bluish tinge and  Bottle and Glass = Arse. Blue-Bottle. Running around like a blue-arsed fly.

  • MadAsASnake

    I remember this from childhood – 1960′s NZ. Always assumed it to be bluebottles which come in in the evening and buzz around incessantly and to little point. These are the two key elements in the usage I recall. Certainly not a creation of royalty!

  • Andrew Haynes

    The origin may be “blue arse-fly” rather than “blue-arsed fly”. The term “arse fly” seems to have been used to describe flies that lay their eggs in soiled wool around the anus of the sheep. I have found internet references to blue arse fly, green arse fly, red arse fly and spotted blue arse fly.  

  • Joss

    I recall my mother saying “running around like a blue arsed fly” regularly – I was born in 1951 in Newport, South Wales so this would most likely have been before 1970 when I went to university. She had been a nurse in the war and had been to India so may have picked it up from soldiers. I don’t remember other adults using the expression -  apart from an auntie who lived with us, my Mum’s much younger sister. She was more genteel and always said “blue-bottle fly”!

  • Roger C

    “The Blue Tail(ed?) Fly* is  an American folk song. the most popular version being recorded by Burl Ives. I think this was in the 1940s, although I suspect the song is much older and is probably a minstrel song from the 19th century. The song is also known as *Jimmy Crack Corn*.

  • Andrewmward09

    My Mum used to say In and out like a blue arsed  Fly, in the 50′s

  • Rachel Jarvis

    The earliest use of ‘blue-arsed fly’ that I’ve found is in a book called ‘The Song of the Flea’ by Gerald Kersh, which was published in 1948.

  • Annieslater120

    My father was born in 1911 in Melbourne Australia, and as a child of the 1950s, I remember him using this expression often, to describe business, when it was a little chaotic.

  • FishyPete

    I first came across this saying whilst in the Royal Navy when in some instances officers & ratings were charging around achieving nothing. The other version I know about is that a person has so many jobs to do that they are all over the place hence “Running around like a blue assed fly”

  • John Murray

    My grandfather who was Liverpool born and bred (1903-1995), regularly used the expression. It certainly pre-dates 1970. He used to describe people who won’t sit still.

  • Allen Dace

    17 minutes into Pete Walker’s 1968 film ‘The Big Switch’ (available on DVD from the BFI as an ‘extra’ on their release of Walker’s ‘Man Of Violence’) a character refers to someone “running around like a blue arsed fly”. I’m sure this won’t be the earliest example but a clear recorded case before 1970.

  • Mary Lloyd6

    My husband says this phrase was used by his father and his friends when he was a child before and after the 2nd World War.  I rectently came across the phrase “buzzing about like blue arsed flies” in the first paragraph of Alan Hunter’s book “Gently by the Shore” first published in 1956 – although my version of the book is a later print I would imaging that it was used in the original edition.

  • Jonno18

    My mum in the 50s used the term rushing around like a blue arsed fly in a pickle bottle

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Lee/721859634 Andrew Lee

    1936
    “Here there and everywhere, working like a trojan and dancing around like a blue-arsed fly”

    Title Master mariner
    Page 88
    Author Claude Cumberlege
    Publisher P. Davies, 1936

  • Niglov

    I am very convinced by the Cockney rhyming-slang theory.  Clearly it refers to Bluebottles.  Bottle and glass + arse hence blue arse fly.  Many of your contributors refer to the word coming from the East and Southeast of London and in common use in the army during WW1&2 and before.  It’s use in Australia would follow from early East End transportees and later emigrants to the antipodes.  Nothing complicated at all.

  • Jared Markham

    Bugs Bunny in the Looney tunes cartoon sang a ditty about the “blue-tail” or ‘blue-tailed’ fly.

  • Clive Holes

    My father (born 1925, South Wales, still alive) used this expression (with the ‘r’) all the time when I was a child and we were living in Wolverhampton  (I was born there in 1948). I have never myself heard it pronounced ‘blue-assed’, which sounds American. To me, it was/is a very common working-man’s expression for someone who never stops moving (usually aimlessly).

  • http://twitter.com/OscarWindsor Oscar Windsor-Smith

    The song Blue Tail Fly or Jimmy Crack Corn, relating to the death of a slave-owner, apparently dates from the 1840s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Crack_Corn. I’d say this – very popular and singable song – was almost certainly the source of Prince Philip’s usage; stemming from his naval career – particularly in WW2, when so many innocent words and phrases were bastardised for international all-male use.

    • Susan Grigor

       Exactly!  I recognized it the moment I heard the expression. I made note of it before I read your comment.  I might have saved my breath to cool my broth as they say somewhere.  :-)

  • Guest

    I was born in Queensland Australia, 1937.  As far back as I can remember the expression, “Running around like a blue-arsed fly”, was in use.  If you have ever seen a blow fly [blue-arsed fly] buzzing around dead carcasses or any putrid substance you will immediately recognize how the saying originated. I still use it to this day.

  • Susan Grigor

    Perhaps you are looking for the folk song “Blue Tail Fly” of the 1840s, a song that is alo known as “Jimmy Crack Corn”.  

    When I was young I us’d to wait

    On the boss and hand him his plate;

    And Pass down the bottle when he got dry,

    And brush away the blue tail fly.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Tail_Fly

  • Christineeaves

    My father, who was Liverpool-Irish, born in 1904, used “blue-arse fly” as far back as the 40s. He used it to describe my mother’s heroic efforts to round up the children for an outing.  I’m fond of the expression and have made sure it lives on here in Vancouver even unto the fourth generation! 

  • Roget Lowman

    I clearly remember (and beiing impresseed by) my classics teacher using the term phrase ‘like a blue-arsed fly’ circa 1955.  I think the phrase was in reasonably common use at that time, and the examples from ealier of ‘blue-assed fly’ would seem to confirm this, as ‘blue-assed’ is simply the American spelling/pronunciation of ‘ass/arse’.  This is the sort of word which would exist in speech ahead of a written form as it is slightly indecent (although not by modern standards).

     

  • Richard

    I have a book titled “Modern American Humour,” an anthology by Michael Barsley, published  by The Pilot Press, London UK, in 1943. Having read it recently, I believe the phrase “blue-arsed fly” can be found in there, within one of the short stories written by American humourists. Barsley was attempting to introduce the British to the unique sense of humour of American troops. 

  • Israel A Cohen

    This seems to be a variant of “blue-tailed fly”, a term that occurred in a minstrel song in the 1840s. For details, see
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Crack_Corn

    Israel A Cohen
    Petah Tikva

  • John Orford

    I can only confirm all this.  Blue-arsed fly was used in the RAF in the early Fifties. I suspect an origin from the USA, just because of the popular song “Jimmy crack corn”, where it’s “the blue-tailed fly”. So much Rude slang was never written down until the Sixties. Oral sources are essential. And a thing doesn’t become true because it’s written.

  • J. D. M acDonald

    Hello,
    I am seventy-three (73) years old across the pond in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
    I have heard and used the subject expression since I was about three (3) years old during WWII.
    To give credit where credit is due, I searched the internet and found that the expression was used as early as about 1870. The story was told by the man’s grandfather who was born in 1856. It is said to have been used in the times of slave labour in sugarcane/cotton plantations where the masters would make their slaves bend their backs in the fields with their black/blue arses in the air. The masters would declare that,”We shall make them work like blue arsed flies!”.
    In any event the expression has been common slang in the UK, Australia, the USA and Canada almost forever.
    Even Shakespeare used “arse”  e.g. Romeo and Juliet: Act 2, Scene 1, Page 2, Mercutio (35). 
     
    J. D. MacDonald, B.Comm., JD., M.B.A.

  • Bodling

    “The Song of the Flea” by Gerald Kersh (Doubleday, 1948), on page 112 in the Google Books snippet: “But there you are–a writer buzzing about like a blue-arsed fly , trying to pick up a few guineas here or there.”