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shameless pleading






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.

13 comments to Shoo-fly

  • Maria Emilia

    It was a nice surprise to find your site. Very well written and with useful information. Thanks!

  • Pete

    Railroaders use the term “shoo-fly track” or simply “the shoo-fly” to refer to a temporary by-pass around a washout, bridge replacement project, etc.

  • Nick

    Having lived in eastern Pennsylvania (very close to the Amish) for most of my life; ‘shoo-fly pie’ was (is) a classic dessert. If you never have, but do get the chance to try it… make sure it’s a ‘wet bottom’ pie!

  • Duke

    The term is commonly used for a temporary power line around a work site also.

  • John

    At last I’ve found a reference!
    Shoofly was used by pipeliners in the 50’s-70’s to denote a temporary access for equipment where the pipeline ditch was unusually inaccessible.

  • David

    The etymology of shoofly may indicate “short fly” as a possible origin, being a short length of RR track used as a workaround. This would suggest slurred speech by uneducated railway workers and non-English speaking immigrants, both common in the 19th century railroad industry. Most common uses of the word shoofly can be imagined as referring to a “workaround”, what you do when you can’t or don’t do the usual or “correct” thing, such as making a pie from molasses, or a short-cut rocker. Workarounds can also be annoying, such as stopping work on the main fly to build temporary track in difficult terrain. In South America today a popular cocktail is the shoofly, so dubbed by 19th century American RR engineers who could not get the alcohol they wanted from the US and cobbled something together from local liquor as a temporary workaround. Shoo-fly is a common railroading term for temporary workaround and can be found on the Internet

  • Ariel

    Thank you, I’ve just been looking for info approximately this subject for a long time and yours is the greatest I have discovered till now. However, what about the bottom line? Are you positive concerning the supply?

  • Bob

    This is in current use in the Pipeline industry (2015) with the previously referred to context of a temporary access road to a normally inaccessible location. I’m looking at it in a legal (contractual) project document. I came here just to double-check the meaning. It appears here in the plural as shooflies.

  • I’m thinking that shoofly is a corruption of shuffle. A shu-fle track is a temporary bypass installed to allow trains to change position with each other. I think that the term carried over into pipelining to mean a temporary road to allow for construction.

  • Darin Vail

    I now know it is not a type of fly.i am 7 years old a

  • Flora Poole

    I grew up in Duplin County NC back in th 50-60 and there was a passenger train that came thru that we called the shoo-fly or the shufly.

    • Robin

      Why would it have been a great pastime to meet the Shoo Fly train in Mt. Olive around 1917? That’s what my grandfather and his father did! Thanks, Robin

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