Words That Go Bump in the Night

By Rob Kyff

December 26, 2018 3 min read

As a young graduate student, I once took a flight to Minneapolis that left LaGuardia Airport in New York City at 3:15 a.m. No, my plane wasn't delayed; that was actually the scheduled departure time.

Apparently, Northwest Airlines had to shuttle an empty 747 to the Twin Cities overnight, so they decided to sell cheap tickets. So five hapless souls rattled around for two hours in a plane designed to hold 400. Needless to say, the piano lounge wasn't open.

Perhaps because of that nocturnal voyage, I always assumed the phrase "fly-by-night," meaning "shady, unscrupulous, transitory," originated as a reference to cut-rate airlines that flew only at night to save on landing fees or something. Scratch that.

When "fly-by-night" first appeared during the late 1700s, it meant a witch; think nocturnal broomstick rides. During the mid 1800s, "fly-by-night" also came to denote a light, two-wheeled carriage. Apparently, these fast vehicles raced all over London after dark, like airborne witches.

But neither of these meanings is responsible for the current use of the phrase, which derives from another meaning of "fly-by-night" that emerged during the 1800s: "a tenant who flees during the night to escape the landlord or other creditors."

Soon, "fly-by-night" became a general term for any enterprise that was similarly unreliable or unscrupulous. So our current use of the phrase comes from runaways, not runways.

Another nocturnal term with a sketchy pedigree is "nightmare." Because "mare" means "female horse," many people assume that "nightmare" originally had something to do with horses. In fact, the "mare" in nightmare derives from another word that, while identical to "mare" in its spelling, derives from an entirely different root.

The equine "mare" comes from the Germanic root "markhaz" (horse), but the "mare" in "nightmare" originated with the Old English word "maere," which denoted an evil demon that sat on the chests of humans while they slept. These "mares of the night" supposedly caused a sense of suffocation that led to terrifying dreams, and soon the dreams themselves were being called "nightmares."

The belief that the "mare" in "nightmare" refers to a horse may have been reinforced by the scene in the first "Godfather" movie in which a Hollywood producer wakes up with the severed head of his prized horse lying next to him. Now THAT'S a nightmare in more ways than one!

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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