English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

In George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones,

I would have given a hundred silver stags to have been a roach in the rushes when he learned that Lord Beric was off to behead his brother.

what does a roach in the rushes mean?

share|improve this question
sounds like "fly on the wall" could easily be substituted. – Sam Mar 7 '12 at 3:45
Too Localised - it's a made-up expression used by one author, on just two occasions in a series of books – FumbleFingers Aug 20 '12 at 20:21

We would say "I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting" to mean we would love to have been able to eavesdrop. "A roach in the rushes" is Martin's way of making up an idiom for "eavesdropping" to use in his fanciful world — making it up so that it didn't sound like an ordinary English cliché.

share|improve this answer
I don't know the context - is there any possibility that the setting is aquatic, and roach is a fish? – StoneyB Aug 20 '12 at 20:52
@StoneyB: No. The rushes are the kind they used to spread in dining halls, which would acquire a litter of table scraps (and hence roaches) and would be swept up and replaced periodically. – Robusto Aug 20 '12 at 23:37
Hokey-dokey - the first thing I thought of when I saw the quote was Sword in the Stone. – StoneyB Aug 21 '12 at 1:34

Rushes were often used as floor covering in mediaeval halls, being cheap, easily gathered, and mildly fragrant.

1903 Trans. Shropsh. Archaeol. & Nat. Hist. Soc. 3 288 Floors were sanded, or strewn with rushes, and the test of a house was not ‘Were the carpets well shaken?’ but, ‘Were the rushes often changed?’

(taken nearly at random from the OED)

So Martin probably just needed an archaic-sounding equivalent for 'fly on the wall'; Rushes as a dried floor covering fits nicely with his background, and forms a nice alliterative phrase.

As a point of interest, (barely relevant to the answer) roach for cockroach is American: the eighteenth-century equivalent (and so presumably the mediaeval term) was blackbeetle.

share|improve this answer
Since the quote is about Shropshire, wouldn't the more likely phrase have been 'blackbeetle in the rushes' (since there're not many medieval halls in the US)? – Mitch Mar 7 '12 at 14:10
@Mitch: what does 'more likely' mean? As a guess at what a mediaeval Shropshireman would have said, yes (ignoring the changes in the language, dialects, and so forth.) As a striking alliterative phrase for a fictional pseudo-mediaeval nobleman (as I understand it: I haven't read Game of Thrones), probably not. – TimLymington Mar 7 '12 at 14:36
What I meant was, if 'roach' is a mostly American term, then 'roach in the rushes' on its face would be anachronistic ( an American wouldn't have mush chance to see consider a roach among rushes on the floor of a medieval castle). Or was 'roach' used as an Americanism by BrE speakers at the time of that quote? Oh...hold on..you're not claiming that 'roach in the rushes' was ever spoken by non-Americans, right? So what are you saying then? – Mitch Mar 7 '12 at 15:14
I think it's inconceivable Martin meant cockroaches. As you say yourself, roach = cockroach is American (and far more recent than "medieval", imho). And as @Robusto says, the whole point of the expression is that it's made up for the specific context - it would be self-defeating if it seemed to allude to a modern-day pest normally associated with central-heated houses. – FumbleFingers Aug 20 '12 at 20:19

As others have said, it's a more fanciful replacement for the idiom "a fly on the wall."

However, a roach is actually "a small freshwater fish in the carp family", and rushes are "any of several stiff aquatic or marsh plants", so the mental image invoked is intended to be that of a meeting happening whilst fishing (or similar lake-based activity) and a small fish has gotten close enough to hear the conversation, remaining unnoticed due to the plant life growing in the water.

(Credit to JWPat7 for initially mentioning that a roach is also a fish, and to StoneyB for bringing it up again and inspiring me to post.)

share|improve this answer
I assumed roach=fish was common knowledge - but Robusto doesn't explicitly say that, which perhaps explains why some people were tempted to ascribe the modern American roach=insect meaning. I still think the question should be closed, but at least this is the full & correct answer! – FumbleFingers Aug 20 '12 at 23:24

In this context it means "to be present" or "witness the facts".

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.