1796, slang, said by Grose to be an old term of reproach to a woman signifying that she was a witch; used from 1823 in reference to anyone who departs hastily from a recent activity, especially while owing money. The different senses involve the two verbs fly.
Entries linking to fly-by-night
Old English fleoge "a fly, winged insect," from Proto-Germanic *fleugon "flying insect" (source also of Old Saxon fleiga, Old Norse fluga, Middle Dutch vlieghe, Dutch vlieg, Old High German flioga, German Fliege "fly"); literally "the flying (insect)" (compare Old English fleogende "flying"), from PIE root *pleu- "to flow," which is also the source of fly (v.1).
Originally any winged insect (moths, gnats, beetles, locusts, hence butterfly, etc.) and long used by farmers and gardeners for any insect parasite. Flies figuratively for "large numbers" of anything is from 1590s. Plural flien (as in oxen, etc.) gradually normalized 13c.-15c. to -s. Fly in the ointment is from Eccles. x:1. Fly on the wall "unseen observer" first recorded 1881. No flies on _____ "no lack of activity or alertness on the part of," is attested by 1866. Meaning "fish-hook dressed to resemble an insect" is from 1580s; Fly-fishing is from 1650s. Fly-catcher "bird which eats insects on the wing" is from 1670s. The fly agaric mushroom (1788) so called because it was used as a poison for flies.
The sense of "a flight, flying" is from mid-15c. From the verb and the notion of "flapping as a wing does" comes the noun sense of "tent flap" (1810), which was extended to "strip of material sewn into a garment as a covering for buttons" or some other purpose (1844). Baseball fly ball attested by 1866. To do something on the fly is 1856, apparently from baseball.
When the catcher sees several fielders running to catch a ball, he should name the one he thinks surest to take it, when the others should not strive to catch the ball on the fly, but only, in case of its being missed, take it on the bound. ["The American Boys Book of Sports and Games," New York, 1864]
flying mouse-like mammal (order Chiroptera), 1570s, a dialectal alteration of Middle English bakke (early 14c.), which is probably related to Old Swedish natbakka, Old Danish nathbakkæ "night bat," and Old Norse leðrblaka "bat," literally "leather flapper," from Proto-Germanic *blak-, from PIE root *bhlag- "to strike" (see flagellum).
If so, the original sense of the animal name likely was "flapper." The shift from -k- to -t- may have come through confusion of bakke with Latin blatta "moth, nocturnal insect."
The Old English word for the animal was hreremus, from hreran "to shake" (see rare (adj.2)), and rattle-mouse, an old dialectal word for "bat," is attested from late 16c. Flitter-mouse (1540s) occasionally is used in English (with variants flinder-mouse, flicker-mouse) in imitation of German fledermaus "bat," from Old High German fledaron "to flutter."
As a contemptuous term for an old woman, it is perhaps a suggestion of witchcraft (compare fly-by-night), or from bat as "prostitute who plies her trade by night" [Farmer, who calls it "old slang" and finds French equivalent "night swallow" (hirondelle de nuit) "more poetic"].
updated on October 10, 2017