by Amanda Laugesen
There was a recent surge of media interest when the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) put out a call for members of the public to help them find early evidence for a range of terms, including come in from the cold, disco, and blue-arsed fly. This last term sparked interest here in Australia because the OED claimed that the earliest evidence in print for the term was from Prince Philip commenting, in 1970, that a photographer had been ‘running around like a blue-arsed fly’.
Many Australians were outraged not only that Prince Philip was cited as providing the first evidence for a term that they believed had been around much earlier, but also that the term was not considered to be Australian. One letter to the editor of The Australian by a West Australian commented:
As schoolboys in the 1950s, my mates and I often ran about like blue-arsed flies, incurring the wrath of parents and teachers. For the Duke of Edinburgh to be given credit for a 1970 use hardly seems right. (6 October 2012).
So what is the story of blue-arsed fly? And is it Australian?
Although the OED claims the term blue-arsed is first recorded in 1970, the variant form blue-assed—of English regional and US origin—was recorded as early as 1932. In fact, there is ample evidence in print of the blue-arsed version from at least as early as 1945, and it also appears in Wilfred Granville’s Sea Slang of the Twentieth Century (1949), and in Sidney Baker’s collection, Australia Speaks (1953), where it is claimed as Australian. So it certainly appears to have been around from at least the period of the Second World War.
As with many slang idioms, like a blue-arsed fly was almost certainly in circulation for some time before it appeared in print. Because the word arse was considered coarse and such words were not usually acceptable in print, it could well have taken some time for a term like this to find its way into the records. Australian readers remember the term being around in the 1940s, but it probably extends back to at least the start of the twentieth century.
Trisha Small, responding to the OED appeal and cited in an article in the Guardian (9 October 2012), believes the origin of the term to be Australian. She argues that it dates back to 1850s Australia and came from a stage performer called Robert ‘Billy’ Barlow who had a stage act in which he impersonated a blue-tailed fly.
It is unclear whether blue-arsed fly is Australian or whether it came from the curious act of Mr Barlow. However, Small is correct in pointing out the popularity of blue-tailed fly (a blue-tail fly is a type of horse-fly). There is a lot of evidence in Australian newspapers of the 1850s to show that there was a music-hall song The Blue-Tail Fly which was first popular in Australia in 1853 and which came to be identified with Barlow. However, the song is in fact an American minstrel song (also known as ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’) and dates from the 1840s.
At some point, phrases such as ‘buzzing around like a blue-tailed fly’ came into usage in Australia. The first evidence we can find of blue-tailed fly used in this way appears in The Queenslander in 1892:
Now, there was no half-way house on this stage, so I had a small beer case packed with meat and drink for the midday halt. The box lay in the pantry all ready. Chalk, buzzing about like a blue-tailed fly, said he would see it aboard. (17 December)
It is possible that at some point there was a modification of blue-tailed to blue-arsed (and in the US perhaps blue-assed) but we have no conclusive evidence to know when this might have occurred.
There are a number of arse terms which we claim as Australian, however. They include: arsey ‘lucky’; to be given the arse ‘to be dismissed from employment’; and to have more arse than class ‘to have a lot of cheek, or to be very lucky’.