nightfly /’naɪtflaɪ/

Asking people about their favorite books, music, and movies is always a fun way to indulge in some amateur psychoanalysis, Freudian or otherwise. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) used the concept when it started the show Desert Island Discs back in 1942. Its originator, Roy Plomley, hosted the show for 43 years until his death in 1985 at the age of 71. The concept was, and still is, that the guest had to choose eight pieces of music that they would want to have while cast away on a desert island.

Desert Island Discs

The show is still being broadcast by the BBC and is the second longest-running radio show in the world after Nashville’s Grand Old Opry, which has been on the air since 1925. As a sign of the times, Desert Island Discs is now available as a regular podcast, tipping its hat to the MP3 generation.

I’ve tried to identify my own eight but failed miserably. Not even eighteen. The best I’ve been able to do is come up with as a “Top Eight albums” – and even that changes with my mood. However, in that eight is usually Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, his first solo offering distinct from his residency with Steely Dan. Released in 1982, Fagen described it as a collection of songs about;

“…certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.”

Fagen has since used his personal visions in 1993’s Kamakiriad, and his 2006 offering, Morph the Cat. Not one to rush out new albums, the current turn out rate suggests he’ll release the next one around 2019 – pre-order now to avoid the download rush!

Donald Fagen, The Nightfly, 1982

What’s etymologically interesting is that the use of the word nightfly to describe the character in the album’s title song seems to be the first instance of being applied in such a fashion.

It’s first ever recorded use is in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2:

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?

Here the word has the literal meaning of, as the OED puts it, “a flying insect which is active at night.” Ultimately this comes in the first part from night, a tremendously old word that appears in many of the Germanic languages (c.f. Old Frisian/Middle Dutch/Middle Low German nacht, Old Saxon and Old High German naht, and Old Icelandic nátt.) Classical Latin gives us noct and nox (c.f. nocturnal meaning “at night), and Ancient Greek has nύξ meaning “night” and personified as Nyx, goddess of the night and mother of Thanatos (death) and Hypnos (sleep).

Ultimately, we can trace the word back to Sanskrit nak or nakt, and digging even further back, Shipley (1984) and Mallory and Adams (2006) suggest the Proto-Indo-European form, *nekut, meaning “dark,” “night,” or even “death,” and “die.”

In turn, fly comes from Old English fléoge, a winged insect, cognate with Middle Dutch vlieghe, Old High German flioga, and probably ultimately from the verb *fleugan, meaning “to fly.”

The word was transferred to the angling world in 1799 to refer to an artificial fly used in night fishing. The meaning remains to this day, as demonstrated in Auckland, NZ’s Sunday News, 23rd June, 1996; “Select night flies that are the shape of crayfish, cockabullies, smelt or any locally common surface food.”  [A cockabully is a small New Zealand fish, the word itself possibly coming from the Maori word, kokapuru, meaning “small fish.”]

The Ginger Pearl - A night fly

In Donald Fagen’s song, the word appears in the following context:

I’m Lester the Nightfly
Hello Baton Rouge
Won’t you turn your radio down
Respect the seven second delay we use.

The meaning here is closer to that of a night-flyer, which, according to the OED, refers to “a person who or animal (esp. a moth) which flies by night.” The word is first recorded in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in the sentence;

I knew one fellow, that while I was a prisoner in Newgate, was one of those they called then Night-fliers,..who by connivance was admitted to go abroad every evening.

In this context, it refers specifically to a prisoner who was released each evening – which sounds something of a recipe for trouble – and in return for freedom would reveal the details of the activities of other criminals. An earlier stool pigeon?

With the invention of the airplane, pilots became night flyers: “What the night flyer needs… is the power to change his vision quickly from the illuminated cockpit and instrument panel to the outside world and back again.” Science, 10th March, 1939.

Horror writer, Stephen King, penned the short story, the Night Flier, a story that involves a man who flys a plane by night but also a vampire – another type of “night flier.”

Clearly Fagen uses the word – unhyphenated – metaphorically, as Lester is the DJ who works the night shift, playing Jazz and listening to calls from the sleepless, the lonely, and the disaffected.

And the album is on my top eight list. So go ahead, Dr. Freud, make of that what you will.

Mallory, J.P. and Adams, D.Q. (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford University Press: New York.

Shipley, J.T. (1984). The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Words. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

Wordle: nightfly -etymology


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Filed under Etymology, Word Origins

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