Fly formulaicity

… in the 10/3 Wayno/Bizarro collab entitled “Off the wall”:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 5 in this strip — see this Page.)

A little festival of formulaicity. In the title, the (informal) idiom off the wall and an allusion to the idiom fly on the wall. In the interviewee’s remark, the (colloquial) idiom fly in the buttermilk and perhaps an allusion to the song “Ole Buttermilk Sky” [10/9: but see the comment below on “Skip to My Lou”]; an allusion to a family of “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup” jokes; and the idiom fly in the ointment. Plus a pair of excellently anthropomorphic houseflies on a tv talkshow; if it’s a late-night show, it could be Fly By Night (with the idiom fly-by-night).

On and off the wall. From NOAD:

off the wall: North American informal 1 eccentric or unconventional. 2 (of a person) angry: the president was off the wall about the article. 3 (of an accusation) without basis or foundation. [sense 1 in the cartoon?]

fly on the wall: [a] an unnoticed observer of a particular situation. [b] [as modifier] denoting a filmmaking technique whereby events are observed realistically with minimum interference rather than acted out under direction: a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Fly in the buttermilk. Not in the OED, or (so far as I can tell) in GDoS. But in Wiktionary:

fly in the buttermilk: (colloquial) A black person in a predominantly white group of people.

And an Urban Dictionary entry takes it to be a racial variation of fly in the ointment (see below).

Two literary occurrences of the idiom:

a James Baldwin story: “The Hard Kind of Courage” (Harper’s Magazine, October 1958), reprinted as “A Fly in the Buttermilk” in Nobody Knows My Name (1961)

Fly in the Buttermilk: The Life Story of Cecil Reed, by Cecil A. Reed (1993)

The back cover copy for the Reed book begins:

Born in 1913 in Collinsville, Illinois, Cecil Reed has lived all of his life in the Midwest as a black man among whites. This self-styled fly in the buttermilk worked among whites with such skill and grace that they were barely aware of his existence – unless he wanted to get a bank loan or move into their neighborhood. Now, in his lively and optimistic autobiography, he speaks of his resilience throughout a life spent working peacefully but passionately for equality. As a teenager and young man, Cecil Reed was the black waiter, the short-order cook, the paper carrier, the tap dancer and singer, the carpenter, and the maintenance man who learned to survive in a white society. As an adult in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he inched his way into owning several small businesses, convincing the community to accept him and his family through hard work and creativity. When whites felt besieged by black militants in the sixties, they turned to him for less threatening advice and leadership.

(But, apparently, he was never really one of them. Just the Good Negro.)

From buttermilk fly to the amiably tuneful buttermilk sky. From Wikipedia:

(#2) Carmichael singing his song

“Ole Buttermilk Sky” was a big hit in 1946 for Kay Kyser and other artists. It has been covered by a multitude of artists over the years.

The song was composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Jack Brooks, and introduced by Carmichael in the film Canyon Passage.

The fly in the ointment. From NOAD:

a fly in the ointment: a minor irritation that spoils the success or enjoyment of something.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup”. With many ripostes (and also a related family of waiter-and-food jokes). Don’t know the history, but people have collected the jokes. From the Waiter Joke Archive (Autumn 2004), the seed joke for a large family:

1. Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!
Ssh, don’t speak so loud. The other guests will want one too!

From Linda Causey’s A Perfect World website on 10/2/08, the posting “Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?”:

Using silliness as a diversion from nonsense. No that is not the punchline. One of my cartoon writing techniques is to play with a cliche or very old joke. I’ve been having fun with the fly in the soup joke.

Standard joke:
Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?
The backstroke.

Then she provides lots of variants.

And from The Guardian‘s Notes and Queries column, on “What is the origin of the ‘Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup’ joke?”, responses including this one (from Stuart Mealing of Talaton, Exeter):

A number of ‘Waiter …’ jokes are attributed to the notoriously rude waiters at Lindy’s Restaurant in New York, whose replies include: ‘It’s possible. The chef used to be a tailor’ [play on fly as a trouser feature] and ‘Don’t worry. How much soup can a fly drink?’

Finally, Fly By Night. From NOAD:

adj. fly-by-night: [attributive] unreliable or untrustworthy, especially in business or financial matters: cheap suits made by fly-by-night operators.



2 Responses to “Fly formulaicity”

  1. Richard Bell Says:

    Not “Old Buttermilk Sky.” It’s “Skip to my Lou, my Darling”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, it could be both. But “Skip to My Lou” does have “fly in the buttermilk” in a verse: “Fly in the buttermilk / Shoo, fly, shoo” (that is, ‘go away, fly’). This verse from a partner-stealing dance from the mid-19th century US is presumably the historical source for the metaphorical idiom fly in the buttermilk.

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