The question is how to justify the use of fly in “the Flying Dutchman”.

It confused me for a long time. The right word could be wander, sail, roam, drift, but why fly? I looked it up the dictionary, and didn't find any meaning of fly that qualifies here, and I have never seen the word fly used like that anywhere else.

Can I say:

The Hukou policy in China made me homeless in my home country. For the years I just fly.

It feels so weird. “I just roam” or “I just drift” sounds better. The only case I can find of using fly to mean roaming is in the movie Up In The Air, where roaming literally means flying.

  • 1
    If you were looking for an 'airy' word that works with roaming, you might consider "float". That said, I think PSWG's version of your sentence is good/better ("... For years I roamed.")
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 4:32
  • Thanks for all the comments. A lot pointed out that "Fly" is about the speed. "The Flying Dutchman" is translated to Chinese as "The Roaming Dutchman" (漂泊的荷兰人 or 徬徨的荷蘭人) as early as I can remember, a mis-translation perhaps, and the source of confusion. The latter translation is even worse, meaning "The Maundering Dutchman", with a connotation of slowness! Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 11:09
  • "Fly, boldly fly," the shade replied, "If you seek for El Dorado!" Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 14:02
  • There was a humorous variation in the the Simpsons, the Frying Dutchman images1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20081231234717/simpsons/images/3/…
    – Tristan
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 14:41
  • Could have something to do with the whole business of flying having been associated with witchcraft somewhere around the early to late 1600s. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 17:45

3 Answers 3


I could be wrong, but my understanding is that the name does not refer to the manner in which the Flying Dutchman moves, but rather its rapidity. The relevant definition is:

3 a : to move, pass, or spread quickly <rumors were flying>

— source Merriam Webster

In other words, the Dutchman flies because it is a very fast ship.

Another explanation offered by Wikipedia, is that the entire idea of the Flying Dutchman came from an optical illusion in which caused a ship near the horizon to appear to be floating in the sky.

In your sentence, yes you can use the word fly, but I don't think it has the meaning you intend. Fly tends to imply an active, intentional movement, while roaming implies a passive or undirected movement. In this context, I think roamed is the more appropriate verb.

The Hukou policy in China made me homeless in my home country. For years I roamed.

  • @PieterGeerkens You're absolutely right. I focused on the verb, but didn't catch the unnecessary article.
    – p.s.w.g
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:01
  • This is not the right answer at all! The Flying Dutchman (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Dutchman) was a sea myth some centuries ago, that described a 'ghost ship' which was (according to the myth) in fact flying. It was believed to be a ship from the Dutch East-Indian Trading Company (Dutch abbreviation VOC) that sank but kept sailing the seas for eternity. I believe it made appearance in The Pirates of the Carribean.
    – paddotk
    Commented May 24, 2014 at 16:32

The "fly" in "Flying Dutchman" refers to the point of sail the ship is at (wind off the hind quarter to the beam), making maximum speed. See these references:

  1. Yachts Fly Before the Wind (1937)
  2. "Turn back and fly, like ships before the wind" - Shakespeare

Because the winds blow strongly off the Cape of Good Hope, a ship before the wind moves at high speed on these points of sail.

At these points of sail, small flat-bottomed sail boats will plane over the water in a good breeze, actually lifting out of the water somewhat. I suspect this is the origin of this sense of "fly".

As I note below in a comment, sailing with the wind dead astern is a slower point of sail even for boats with modern spinnakers. However "running before the wind" is quite comfortable, as the boat is flat (not heeled) and riding smoothly.

Update: From the OED:

Fly-boat: ... originally denoting one of the small boats used on the vlie or channel leading from the Zuyder Zee, afterwards applied in ridicule to the small boats used against the Spanish [in the 80-years war 1568-1648] by the Geuex de mer (1572); ... 1: A fast sailing vessel used chiefly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: a for rapid transportation of goods, esp in the coasting trade. obs exc spec a Dutch flat-bottomed boat.

  • Note that if the wind is dead astern, the ship is "running" rather than flying. This point of sail is slower because no aerodynamic lift is available to the sails. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:05
  • I don't think Shakespeare's usage was exactly a "nautical term". OED has citations from 1627-1805 for the definition To allow (a sail or sheet) to fly loose, which would obviously imply minimum, not maximum speed (if the sail is loose/flying, you've no wind power at all). Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:25
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers: What?! We are talking the English "Age of Sail" that defeated the Spanish Armada a few years earlier. This is a well-known and widely-understood sailing term, and I cannot imagine it not having the appropriate nautical meaning. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:29
  • @FumbleFingers: I strongly recommend, if the opportunity presents, that you watch a local dinghy race sometime. You will have no doubts that the boats are "flying" on the beam reaches. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:32
  • @ Pieter: I don't doubt it. I'm just saying I don't see that definition in OED around C18, but I do see a diametrically opposite one at that time. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:46

OED's earliest citation for the verb fly (literally, move through the air with wings) is Beowulf...

Nacod niðdraca, nihtes fleogeð fyre befangen
(I assume I've highlighted the right word; I'm not good at English that old! :)

A few centuries later (certainly by C13 Chaucer) they report the word being used "figuratively", as...

(esp. of fame, a report, etc.)
to fly high (or a high pitch) : to aim at or reach a high pitch of action, feeling, etc.
to fly low : to avoid notoriety.

A centuries or two after that, OED has citations where it defines (again, figurative) fly as...

To move or travel swiftly, pass rapidly, rush along.

After another century or two, we finally reach OP's specific usage (this from Wikipedia)...

The first reference in print to [The Flying Dutchman] appears in Chapter VI of A Voyage to Botany Bay (1795) (also known as A Voyage to New South Wales), attributed to George Barrington.

My guess would be that Barrington (or whatever sailors he may have gotten the yarn from) probably intended both senses 2 and 3 above (but not 1, presumably).

Wikipedia's suggestion that the ship appeared to literally fly, float aloft because of an optical illusion caused by atmospherics is unlikely, to say the least. If that was the original meaning, Barrington would surely have mentioned it, since ships don't normally float in the air.

As regards OP's idea that to fly might be used to mean to roam, drift - the short answer is No! There are lots of other ways the word can be used (if you don't know them, look in a dictionary). About the closest to OP's roaming context is fly = flee, escape, leave [hurriedly].

Up in the Air just happens to be a movie about a guy who spends a lot of time in planes (flying from city to city for his job). It's got no real relevance to OP's context.

  • 2
    ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:39
  • 1
    @tchrist: Steven Pinker likes to go on about "balls which can be flied" (or is it only the player who can be "flied out", I don't know). Partly, he likes the regular/irregular verb juxtaposition, but mostly I think he just likes telling everyone that he's into baseball and all things American. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:52
  • Baseball or cricket. In cricket the ball is caught on the fly, and the batter is flied out. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 4:23
  • I always assumed that to fly low to avoid notoriety was a usage that came after the invention of radar, but here I learn it predates radar by hundreds of years! Why would the idea of flying low have suggested that when all that flew was birds, I wonder?
    – AakashM
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 8:36
  • @AakashM: Presumably in contrast to flying high. Everybody notices a flag flying high, or OED's metaphoric fame, report above, so it's a natural reversal from that usage. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 16:08

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