wotd: gadfly

January 29, 2007

i’m a big supporter of the whole “free books. free reviews” project. in fact, i may have suggested the idea. but such is the curse of the editor that he can only receive credit when he acts like a jerk and takes it. in that spirit, the best book i ever found in the Powell’s free bin was, “The Gadfly,” which the cover thankfully informed me was the #1 selling american novel in the soviet union (has there ever been a better cover blurb?). Shortly after ganking the book, I began to use the word whenever possible.

and i think i’ve been misusing it.

i’ve always assumed that the word comes from gad-about, or, to be more correct, “gad-v2”: “To go from one place to another, to wander; esp. to wander about with no serious object, stopping here and there, to rove idly. Also to gad about, abroad, out.” an initial look at the AHD suggests I’m wrong. their first definition for “gadfly” is: “a persistent irritating critic; a nuisance” (i guess I really am a gadfly…); and the second is: “one that intitialacts as a provocative stimulus.” nowhere is the idea of idling present.

thankfully the OED assures me that I’m not incorrect. while their first definition is the actual fly, and their second definition is the nuisance, the third (albeit disappearing) definition is, one who gads about. seeing as the english language also has the noun, “gadabout,” one prone to gadding about, it makes sense that the third definition of gadfly is disappearing. this is also a good illustration of poststructuralism’s contention that we need to be mindful of a word’s etymology when we read. as used, gadfly could mean many different things.

“gad-v2” is actually of questionable origin. though many believe that it comes from “gad-n1”, the fly, the OED quotes imply that the word comes from the now obsolete, “gadling”: a wanderer or vagabond (also, a companion). gadling is from the gothic and means companion.

i can’t actually say whether or not the gadfly in the book is a harmless idler or a nuissance. unlike mr. butawhimper, i couldn’t make it past the yellow brittle paper stock, and the book has languished on my shelves.

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