Fly on the wall

Definition: To watch something without being seen yourself

Example: Barbara would love to be a fly on the wall when Marcie discovers the truth about her boyfriend.


Flies have long been noted in literature for their ability to be unseen. Centuries, in fact. As such, authors have expressed an interest in being flies for the purpose of watching events unseen. It was originally expressed as “if I were a fly...’ The current expression seems to have appeared in the early 1900s in America, at least in print.

It is commonly used in describing ‘fly on the wall’ documentaries, films normally covering the day to day life of individuals where the presence of the camera and crew are unseen.

Iddy is no fan of six-legged, disease spreading, flying vermin.

But then again, he prefers them to his Auntie Vera. Not only can she fly and spread disease, she has eight legs.


sitting on the fence

Definition: To be undecided or refusing to choose a side

Example: The kids wanted a dog. His wife wanted a cat. Jack was sitting on the fence over the issue. No matter which side he chose, it wasn’t going to make life easy for him.


Since the 1800s, sitting on the fence has been a popular phrase, especially when discussing political matters. It’s purely visual in nature. Hopping down one side of that fence takes you in one direction, hopping down the other side takes you in the opposite direction. Sitting there gets you nowhere at all.

The most famous political fence sitters were the Mugwumps, a group of Republicans who supported a Democratic candidate in the 1884 US election. The term came from the Algonquin ‘Mugquomp’, meaning ‘important person’. The term was not used as a mark of respect, but of derision. They were described by their opponents as birds sitting on a fence, with their mug on one side and their wump on the other. Ironically, they weren’t sitting on the fence at all. They made a decision, a hard one, and chose their side.

Iddy’s ready to make a choice himself. Any longer up there and his butt will be entirely numb.


cutting corners

Definition: To do something by the easiest /fastest /cheapest method, at the expense of doing it properly

Example: When the wheels came off Greg’s bike at high speed, he immediately regretted cutting corners when he’d repaired it.


Cutting corners originated in the physical act of going from A to B by the shortest possible route. There are multiple examples from the 1800s. Walking via an untried shortcut was cutting corners. Fox hunting parties on horseback not following the dog pack directly to catch them up were cutting corners. The expression also extended to carriages taking a corner too sharply so that the wheels mounted the curb. All of these situations had a common element of risk. A shortcut on foot might be dangerous. Horses might fall on unseen obstacles that the dog pack did not encounter on their own route. A carriage might break a wheel or axle, or even overturn.

Incidentally, the act of cutting corners spawned another phrase, one typically used across North America: kitty corner. It describes the relative location of something usually a building, being on the diagonally opposite corner of an intersection of streets. As cute as the term is, using it in conversation in the UK will get you a blank, uncomprehending stare.

But how the heck did this cute term come to be? Well, in older English usage, to cater was the act of going across, especially diagonally. The phrase cater corner came out of this. Over time, it morphed into catty corner, and eventually to the modern phrase kitty corner.

It might be worth sending Iddy out to look for a kitty corner at some point. Even if it’s just to see his own blank, uncomprehending stare…


got your backDefinition: You are supporting or protecting somebody.

Example: “I’ve got your back!” Randy shouted to Steve. Despite this assurance, Steve was shot twenty-seven times by the other paintball team. Thirteen of them were in the back.


Iddy has heard several explanations for the origin of ‘got your back‘. Let’s start with the least likely and progress to the most:

  1. If you put your arm around someone’s shoulders to comfort them, you physically have their back in your grasp.
  2. In some ancient forms of combat involving swords and shields, a ‘buddy’ system of fighting with your back to another friendly soldier’s protected you from attack in that direction.
  3. Still in the world of combat, but more recent, the phrase arose in the Second World War. As buildings and other defensive positions were cleared by squads, the first soldier to enter would be reliant on others to protect him from the rear as he concentrated fully on what lay ahead of him. This explanation seems best as it agrees with the similar phrase ‘Watch my back’ and fits in well with the timeline of the idiom’s introduction to the language.

Iddy’s upset as he didn’t ask anybody to get his in the first place. And now he feels a bit spineless.