What is the Meaning of the Phrase “Not I said the Fly”
Many phrases in the English language have stood the test of time. Some of these phrases have been used so often. They have come to mean so many things that their origins have become lost to modern language speakers. The word, not I said the fly, falls into this category. It is essential for people interested in understanding and learning English to know about this phrase. It can provide insight into how English developed over time and how the language continues to evolve even today.
An In-Depth Look at The Meaning
One evening, a man was walking through his house when he came upon a frog sitting on his table. Wondering where it had come from, he picked it up and placed it outside. Later that night, he heard a knock at his door. When he opened it, another frog was sitting on his doorstep.
The following day when he woke up, there was yet another frog waiting for him on his windowsill. So each time he left his residence, everything persisted until there were no more frogs in Ireland—they’d all learned their lesson in that one house but instead refused to leave.
Is it an allusion?
Perhaps it’s because I’m not a literary person (I think I read only one book for pleasure in high school). Still, when my co-workers use words like allusion, synecdoche, and metaphor, it makes me feel a little out of place. So when asked if not, I said the fly / Nor yet perhaps didst thou? That listened by. The same tale to me was an allusion to Edward Lear’s poem The Jumblies; my first reaction was to wonder how many people know who Edward Lear is.
If you’re curious, he was a Victorian poet famous for writing nonsense verses such as The Owl and the Pussycat—and that’s precisely what Not I Said The Fly is: nonsense. It doesn’t make sense; you have to understand its context within Lear’s work to get any meaning from it. Some readers have even suggested that Not I Said The Fly isn’t even part of Shakespeare’s play at all—it could be another poem entirely! It may not be an allusion in context or theme, but certainly with content.
Speculation about who said it and why
One legend is that a grammarian named Richard Whately was caught saying Not I! during an oration, so he blamed his outburst on a fly. This version explains why it’s written in the present tense (the grammar error supposedly occurred when someone spoke in the past tense).
Another legend attributes Not I! to a quotation from Seneca. As for why we use it as an exclamation and not as a question, most etymologists think it’s just what people are used to. Since I didn’t say anything that would sound weird when spoken aloud, it makes sense that we’d end up saying something like Not I! instead.
Some linguists have suggested that we might be more likely to mark denials with a similar fall in pitch because we ask questions by adding an intonational rise at the end—but there’s no hard evidence to support that idea. It could also be purely arbitrary; some scholars have suggested that we do it simply because our ancestors liked how Not I! sounded better than Didn’t I?
Possibilities of where it came from
Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff refers to three moons with an old Scottish proverb: If that had been done when that was done, it would’ve been well accomplished: if somehow the death / Could trammel up the outcome, and catch / To his surcease success; But now this blow / Could be the be-all and end-all in this condition. ( If it had been done when it was done, it would be achieved directly.
If somehow the mass murder trammel up the effect, or catch/With his surcease success; that but this throw be the end-all and be around.) The word assassination comes from Middle French assassinate, derived from Italian assassinated, from Arabic hashshāshīn.
The Arabic word originally meant h*shish user. But in time, it took on a more general meaning of someone who murders for hire or political reasons. And now it has been used as a synonym for murder! So you could argue that these words are attributed, not just because they begin only with the letter H!
One possibility is that it’s a reference to an old proverb. Some sources claim that it’s a 19th-century English idiom, akin to other said/said-themed phrases such as Not I! Said Little John, and, ‘Twas isn’t me! It may also be a nod to Pope’s poem An Essay on Criticism, where he writes: ‘This actual, ’tis writ in praise of folly; / But still ’tis true, and not a lie expressed.
The line has also been attributed to Oscar Wilde: Many people say that Oscar Wilde never made up his mind whether he was lying or telling the truth. He used to say, Not I! Said a fly on the wall. And then there’s one more explanation, which comes from A Dictionary of Modern Proverbs by James Rogers (1895): He who denies everything says nothing at all—that is what a fly once said when caught in a spider’s web. This source claims that it comes from Voltaire’s 1764 play Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le Prophète (Fanaticism or Mahomet the Prophet). Still, we haven’t found any evidence for that online yet.
While there are many possible meanings for Not I, Said The Fly by William Carlos Williams, one of its primary themes focuses on how language reflects an individual’s state of being. While Dr Williams did not think highly of many modern literary techniques, he especially dislikes purely abstract writing where each poem has no tangible relation to life as we know it.
Language should be grounded in reality, and Dr Williams believes that his poems accomplish that task very well. Given his prolific writing career and short life span, there are hundreds more texts by William Carlos Williams waiting to be discovered and examined; some may even have greater significance than any written before him or since. We will never know until they are read!