Quick, Henry, the Flit!

Dear Word Detective:  I had found the word “shu-fly” before, but now a Google search says there is no such thing.  It is a small road or access (usually temporary) used to connect two things (roads or right of ways) together.  I have a friend who always gets angry when I use the word and I needed something “official” to show her there really is such a thing.  Oh, by the way, we do use a “cat” to clear the roads or rights of way; it just isn’t furry but has metal tracks and a big engine. — Tim McTaggart.

And I’ll bet it doesn’t shed.  I assume  that by “cat” you mean (for the benefit of our readers not familiar with construction equipment) a Caterpillar bulldozer (or something similar made by another manufacturer).  Incidentally, the verb “to bulldoze” was originally, in the late 19th century, spelled “bulldose,” and meant to beat someone up very severely (to give them a “dose” with the force and savagery of a bull).

I’m not surprised that Google didn’t turn up anything on “shu-fly,” but I would have expected them to suggest the more common spelling, “shoo-fly” (or “shoofly”).  “Shoo-fly” has a long history, especially in the American South, and since the middle of the 19th century has acquired an almost bewildering variety of meanings and applications.

In its most basic sense, “shoo-fly” is an expression of annoyance, the sort of thing one would exclaim while waving away an annoying fly.  “Shoo” is itself what the Oxford English Dictionary calls an “instinctive exclamation” (I love that phrase), used for centuries “to frighten or drive away poultry, birds, or other intruders.”  The “fly” in “shoo-fly” is just the common fly.  “Shoo-fly” became a catch phrase in the US around 1870, when a song and dance man named Dan Bryant did a song by that name that became so popular that a “shoo-fly” fad, as H.L. Mencken later noted, “afflicted the American people for at least two years.”

“Shoo-fly pie” is popular among the Amish of Pennsylvania as well as in the US South, and is really more of a molasses crumb-cake than a pie.  The name, which first appeared in print in  1935, is said to come from the understandable attraction the molasses holds for hungry flies.  Less clear is why a rocking horse with a seat between two wooden cutouts of a horse would be known as a “shoo-fly rocker,” but it has, since at least 1887.  Ten years earlier, “shoo-fly” had also appeared in print meaning “a police officer detailed to check up on other police officers,” a use most likely drawn either from the expression “no flies on him” meaning “alert and perceptive” or referring to the role of the officer is “shooing” away metaphorical “flies” of corruption.

“Shoo-fly” meaning “temporary bypass” first appeared in railroad jargon around 1905. The logic of this use is unclear, but I think it’s significant that around the same time “shoo-fly” was also being used to mean “a local or commuter train.”  My guess is that such trains, traveling slowly with frequent stops, were considered a rustic or “hick” mode of travel, likely to be carrying as many flies as human travelers (requiring passengers to constantly “shoo flies”).  Perhaps the “shoo-fly” name then broadened to mean bypasses from the main line where trains would have to slow down and, eventually, to any sort of bypass, even on a highway.  In any case, your use of “shoo-fly” in this sense is clearly an extension of the railroad use more than 100 years old, and your friend should thank you for expanding her vocabulary.

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