• gadfly •
gæd-flai • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A fly that bites livestock, the horsefly or botfly. 2. A provocative nuisance, a persistently annoying person who criticizes others in order to provoke them into taking some course of action.
Notes: Although the verb gad has nothing to do with gadfly, several writers in the past have used today's word in referring to someone who 'gads about' (a gadabout). Nor is it related to the gads in "Ye gads!" the exclamation I can still remember from high school. That gad is a euphemism for god.
In Play: Since we have horsefly, which provides us the opportunity to keep the two meanings of this word discrete, we probably hear this word used more often in its figurative sense: "This company is infested with gadflies who want the management to always do the right thing!" Ralph Nader made a profession out of being a gadfly: "Ralph Nader is a gadfly who has arguably saved more lives than any other living American."
Word History: Today's Good Word is a compound noun comprising gad "goad, pointed stick" + fly. English apparently borrowed gad from Viking (Old Norse) gaddr "spike, nail". Although historically unrelated to goad, its sound and meaning may have been influenced by this word. Today we have evidence of a PIE word with e/o (ablaut) forms, both of which reached English: PIE pleu-/plou- "to flow". In English they emerged both as fly and flow. In Old English fly was fleogan and flow, flowan. German fliegen, Dutch vliegen, and Swedish flyga preserve the G in the words for "fly", but in English the G was reduced to H, then disappeared altogether like most Hs in English. Along the way, flee developed from the same Old English word. (Let's all now thank Norman Holler, our Yukon friend who promises to be no gadfly, for recommending today's Good Word.)
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