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What Is a Fly on the Wall?

K.C. Bruning
Updated May 23, 2024
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"A fly on the wall" is an English language idiom, or expression that draws meaning from words not specifically related to its intent. The phrase means that a person is able to listen and watch what is happening in a particular place while not being observed. The expression is a reference to the ability of a fly to sit on a wall and also go relatively unnoticed. This phrase is most commonly used in British and American English.

The phrase first came into use in the United States of America during the 1920s. The earliest documented instance of "a fly on the wall" appeared in a February 1921 issue of The Oakland Tribune. The phrase in the article was "I'd just love to be a fly on the wall when the Right Man comes along." It became such a popular expression that it eventually spread to the United Kingdom.

In conversation, the phrase is commonly used when a speaker is indicating a wish to listen in on a particular event. For example, “I wish I were a fly on the wall at that meeting.” It can also be used by speakers in a speculative manner, where they might wonder what they would learn if they were able to witness a certain situation unobserved.

The phrase has also been used to describe observational nonfiction films called fly on the wall documentaries, which became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. In this case, it typically means that the action is taking place while the camera is made as inconspicuous as possible so that the people being filmed will act naturally. Even if the camera is in plain view, participants have often become so accustomed to its presence that they will eventually act as if they are not being filmed.

Historically, animal imagery has been a popular part of English idiomatic expressions. Many common phrases refer to specific animal traits such as the idioms "curiosity killed the cat," "a leopard can’t change its spots," and "like a chicken with its head cut off." Others are less specifically attached to animal traits, such as the phrases "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," "flip the bird," "dog days of summer," and "sick as a dog."

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K.C. Bruning
By K.C. Bruning , Former Writer
Kendahl Cruver Bruning, a versatile writer and editor, creates engaging content for a wide range of publications and platforms, including Language & Humanities. With a degree in English, she crafts compelling blog posts, web copy, resumes, and articles that resonate with readers. Bruning also showcases her passion for writing and learning through her own review site and podcast, offering unique perspectives on various topics.

Discussion Comments

By anon331752 — On Apr 24, 2013

This phrase actually dates back to ancient Sumer. Inanna, the goddess of Heaven and Earth, the Elements of Civilization, and Barmaids and Prostitutes (I'm not making this up) wanted to visit her sister, Ereshkigal, who was the goddess of the Underworld. Ereshkigal, fearing Inanna had designs on her domain (and she did, at least a little), concealed its entrance. Inanna disguised herself as a fly and hung out on the wall in a bar so she could eavesdrop until somebody spilled (and they did). Pretty amazing that this story dates back to about 2500BCE and we are still using the phrase!

By orangey03 — On Jun 21, 2012

Every time that my supervisor and the other bosses go into a meeting, I long to be a fly on the wall. In the past year, they have been making major changes, like letting some people go and cutting other people’s hours, mine included.

We all get nervous when they have their meetings, especially when they aren’t on the regularly scheduled day. The longer they stay in there, the more nervous we get.

A few of us have even attempted to listen through the wall in the neighboring room, but all we could hear was muffled speech. We have even started calling ourselves “The Fly on the Wall Club,” because of our desperation to hear what’s going on in there.

By shell4life — On Jun 21, 2012

I have often been a fly on the wall, but this is just because I often go unnoticed. I am very quiet, and I have a demeanor that just doesn’t stand out much. So, sometimes people either forget that I’m there or don’t even sense my presence.

I have overheard many conversations that I didn’t intend to, and frequently, the people talking never realize that I heard them. Seriously, unless I’m wearing high-heeled shoes that make a lot of noise, I go undetected.

Being an accidental fly on the wall is sometimes interesting because of the things I learn. However, it can also be hurtful at times. I have discovered things that people say about me that are unflattering this way.

By OeKc05 — On Jun 21, 2012

@kylee07drg - I always feel terrible for people who are from other countries who screw up our idioms. I make it a point to go on as if nothing had happened. Laughing at them is the worst thing you can do.

A foreign exchange student came to live with my family when I was in high school, and I helped her understand some of the slang and phrases popular with teenagers here. I actually found a list of idioms online, and I printed it out as a guide for myself when teaching her.

She just couldn’t get the reference that some of them were making, but “fly on the wall” was one of the ones she instantly understood. She did point out something that I’d never thought about, though. She said that she would hate to be a fly on the wall, because people are always smashing them!

By kylee07drg — On Jun 20, 2012

My best friend is from France, and though she has a good grasp of the English language, she still struggles with idioms. I imagine it would be really hard to get the irony and be able to manipulate a language that isn’t your native tongue.

She often misuses idioms, so much so that she finally stopped trying to incorporate them. I think that she wanted to try using them so that she could feel more like she belonged, but she really only alienated herself further when she messed them up.

One time, she was trying to tell our group of friends about how a girl we didn’t like had been called into the conference room by the boss. She told us that she would love to be a “fly in the wall” in that room, and everyone laughed at her. She turned red in the face, and we all felt bad for having laughed.

K.C. Bruning

K.C. Bruning

Former Writer

Kendahl Cruver Bruning, a versatile writer and editor, creates engaging content for a wide range of publications and...
Learn more
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