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To "fly in the face of" something means to be opposite it, with a particular connotation that is hard to describe. Where does the expression come from?

  • I seem to recall it has something to do with how chickens will fly into the face of an attacking fox, but I'm damned if I can find a source for it. – ElendilTheTall Jul 21 '14 at 11:41
  • OED has to fly at/on/upon = to spring with violence upon, attack with fury with first citation 1549. Most early printed instances of fly in the face of... in Google Books seem to be ...of God/Heaven, so I kinda doubt it's an allusion to how cornered chickens behave defensively. – FumbleFingers Jul 21 '14 at 12:09
  • If nature fly in my face first? Then nature's the aggressor. John Dryden, The Spanish Friar, 1681. – bib Jul 21 '14 at 12:58
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This source dates it from the 1500s and says:

Fly in the face of

The first version, from the 1550s, was to fly in a person’s face and its literal meaning was of a dog that attacked by springing at a person. Very early on, it acquired the figurative sense of verbally attacking someone who disagreed with your opinions or your actions, decidedly getting in their face.

See also this page which shows that the meaning of "to fly at" still means to attack, regardless of presence of wings or not

Attack fiercely, assault. For example, The dogs flew at each other's throats . [Late 1500s]

Another source keeps the idea of threatening or challenging danger

Fly in the face of

Meaning: To go against accepted belief; to respond actively against danger. Example: The U.S. invasion of Iraq flew in the face of intelligence reports that stated Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Origin: This expression alludes to that of the hen that flies in the face of the dog or fox that attacks her.

  • The source you offer gives no other source or quote for his knowledge and doesn't seem to carry much weight. – bib Jul 21 '14 at 15:44
  • The other answer seems much more likely to me. Dogs don't fly. Falcons do. – Peter Shor Jul 21 '14 at 16:31
  • @PeterShor The phrase to fly at means to attack. See thefreedictionary.com/fly for another example of the phrase "The dogs flew at each other's throats." – Ilythya Jul 22 '14 at 10:38
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According to the following source, the expression fly in the face of comes from falconry:

  • go against accepted wisdom, knowledge or common practice An expression in use from the 19th century and probably even earlier, from falconry, where the allusion is to a falcon or other bird of prey flying at the face of its master instead of settling on the falconer's gauntlet.

Fly in the face of someone or something , also fly in the teeth of someone or something:

Fig. to challenge someone or something; to go against someone or something.

  • This idea flies in the face of everything we know about matter and energy. You had better not fly in the face of the committee.

Source: (tinyonline.co.uk)

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