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In The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood (1562) among the many historical English proverbs which I recognized, one particular epigram stood out. Entitled “Of Catching a Fly” It isn't particularly difficult to grasp its meaning but a few expressions and one phrase had me puzzled. Here is my translation in modern English

snippet of the epigram whose lines are repeated in the post

A boy on his book clapped hand to catch a fly.

A boy while studying his book, clapped his hands to catch a fly. (OR)
While studying his book, a boy slapped his hand down to catch/kill a fly

“ Hast her? ” cried his master.

Do you have it? His schoolteacher cried.

“ Nay, God wot I.”

No, God knows if I have.

“ Then thou shalt drink! ”
“ Master, I have her, I think.”

Then you shall drink!
Master, I think I have her.

“ If thou have her,” said the master, “ thou shalt drink ”
To furious masters, what helpeth fair speeches?

“If you have her,” said the master, “you shall drink”
To furious masters, what good comes from *graceful speeches? (eloquent?)

Flies caught, or not caught, up go boys' breeches !”

Whether flies have been caught or not, boys' buttocks go up !


Rare expressions and meanings

wot: the third person singular, simple present form of wit: knowledge, be aware of

breeches: I searched online for the meaning (I already knew they were a type of old fashioned trousers for boys and men) because the phrase “up goes boys' breeches” made little sense to me. I found to my surprise that the singular, breech, is a rare term for buttocks or backside.

The rest seems pretty clear, but what does the phrase, “thou shalt drink” refer to? I assume it's unpleasant because the pupil hurriedly retorts he has caught the fly, but why is having a drink a punishment? I'm guessing the schoolteacher is about to cane the boy, a typical school corporal punishment in the United Kingdom. A form of punishment which in 1987 became illegal in state schools and was finally banned in public schools in 1999. In the above Wikipedia link, there is no mention of drink being a punishment or slang.

  • It may stem from the bible; Ezekiel 23:32. Thus saith the Lord GOD; Thou shalt drink of thy sister's cup deep and large: thou shalt be laughed to scorn and had in derision; it containeth much. – Joe Dark Nov 7 '14 at 19:52
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    You seem to have missed the continuing line (starting with the opening [hard bracket). The line should read, «“If thou have her,” said the master, “thou shalt drink!”». The next bit (to furious masters…) is a separate line. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 7 '14 at 20:16
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    @ElberichSchneider no, I just needed to repeat Thou shall drink! that's all. But now the next line makes more sense. – Mari-Lou A Nov 7 '14 at 21:19
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    The attempt of the author of this doggerel to make it scan and rhyme had led to some unnatural use of English here and there. For instance: 1) "A boy on his book clapped his hands to catch a fly". [Despite what Eastern masters of mysticism might suggest, you cannot clap only one hand unless you are clapping that of someone else.] 2) "“Hast thou her?” cried his master". 3) Speeches does not rhyme (and probably never has rhymed) with breeches. Finally, my guess is that "up go boys' breeches!" refers to laying boys over the knee to cane them, which would put their bottoms facing up. – Erik Kowal Nov 8 '14 at 7:26
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    @ErikKowal Re. "clap hand", could it not be the boy slapped his hand? – Mari-Lou A Nov 8 '14 at 12:19
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Drink = experience, endure, pay the penalty. (OED drink, verb, #16).

I took this proverb to mean that a furious master will beat the pupil's hindquarters with a switch (or a cane) in any case, whether he catches the fly or not, and no matter what kind of (fancy) reply the student might give when questioned. The student has not been paying attention to the lesson but has been trying to catch flies.

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  • Of course you have access to the OED. You'll just have to go without food for a month in order to afford OUP's ridiculously high subscription fee. I'll supply the info later, as it's still dark here. – TRomano Nov 8 '14 at 10:53
  • It is (of course) a figurative use, and is obsolete. Examples are cited from the 14th through the late 17th century. – TRomano Nov 8 '14 at 12:43
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    OK, but this evening, since autumn chores are calling me this Saturday morning. I cannot risk a crick in the neck from bending over the OED, magnifying glass in hand, before I rake the leaves up, now can I? :-) – TRomano Nov 8 '14 at 13:09
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    Light bulb moment (they're few and rare between) "You shall taste the crack of my cane."! – Mari-Lou A Nov 8 '14 at 17:15
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    I have the miniaturized version of the real McCoy. amazon.com/s/… OR ebay.com/itm/like/311144918536?lpid=82 which weighs about 8 kilos – TRomano Nov 8 '14 at 17:46
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I'll try to flesh this out further when I have the time (others are welcome to run with it as well), but I found this explanation of Ezekiel 23:32 wherein Matthew Poole's commentary explains that "thou shalt drink," in the context of that verse, means "thou shalt not put it by, and shift it off."

So a quick interpretation of the passage would be as follows:

A boy made to catch a fly.

"Do you have it?" asked the master.

"No," said the boy. "God knows if I have."

"Then go ahead and get the fly; don't put it off," said the master.

"Oh, I think I do have it," said the boy.

"If you have it, what good is eloquent speech? Whether a boy catches a fly or not, out comes the rod for punishment."

I'm not entirely sure as to the justification for the punishment. I think "fair speeches" might refer to the phrase "God wot I"—that is, a fancy excuse or tacked-on phrase won't alter what has or has not been accomplished. (A further guess is that smacking after a fly isn't what a studious boy should be doing, so the master is saying that boys will be punished for slacking off whether or not they accomplish whatever trivial task distracted them and despite whatever grandiloquent excuses they might offer.)

This is only my intuition, however. There may be much better interpretations.

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    I'd assume the punishment is for disrupting the class with the noise. – Oldcat Nov 7 '14 at 22:15
  • @Oldcat Hmmm! That is possible, I hadn't thought of that. – Mari-Lou A Nov 8 '14 at 4:51
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    +1 for being the first to reply and for defogging my brain. Thank you. – Mari-Lou A Nov 8 '14 at 17:06
  • @Mari-LouA Glad to help. Looks like I had some of it right; TRomano definitely has the better answer, though. Maybe someday I'll invest in the OED... – Justin Greer Nov 8 '14 at 20:02
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Here is my quite different reading, based on different glosses of wot and breeches.

The first English translations of the Old Testament appeared in the 1530's providing the first full translations of the Old and New Testaments. The very influential Geneva Bible was published in 1560, and is known as the Breeches Bible because of a translation in Genesis 7:3, where the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil led Adam and Eve to cloth themselves in breeches. I believe Knox and Calvin were involved in its production.

Perhaps the fly represents evil, in which case killing it would be good. Or perhaps clapping it against a book is capturing the fly and holding onto and thus knowing evil. Or perhaps the fly is an innocent creature of nature, in which case killing it would be an act of evil.

Actually, I imagine in another layer of allegory the fly may represent the translators of the Geneva Bible, the stent is the english monarch, and the master is good. I don't know enough of the history of the persecution and flight to the continent of the various translators to pin this down.

According to the OED, 'wot' is an archaic verb from this period meaning 'to know'. So 'God wot I' in modern English is God knows me.

See Ez 4:17, Ez 23:32 in the Geneva and possibly earlier English bibles where God is quoted as saying 'thou shalt drink' as he bestows punishment for bad behaviour. This is one reasonable sense of the 'Thou shalt drink' phrase here, and you can see the references for the extent of the punishments, i.e. drink. Basically, Jerusalem is laid very low by the hands of armies of nations she had thought to ally herself with.

There were parties for children in the 1500s when they were old enough to first wear breeches, at about 7. Up go breeches means to put them on I believe, not taken off, so I don't read the last line as an indication of the type of punishment, but perhaps it is. So a second sense of 'thou shalt drink' would be to celebrate an early coming of age. This echoes the coming of age in the Garden of Eden, and provides a meaning of furious master as the God who casts humans out of paradise for disobeying Him before they knew what was good and evil.

A major division between Protestants and Roman Catholics was over the nature of original sin, and whether it allowed for the existence of free will, and related controversies such as whether concupiscence, an ardent, often sensual desire to do things which are proscribed, is a sin itself or not.

The gist of the text seems to be that regardless of speech or act, humans outgrow their innocence and God will be furious with them. And perhaps the subtle commentary is that we will drink both our celebratory libations and the consequent punishments, whether we will it or not.

These are not fully considered views and interpretations; merely ones I hope you find helpful.

  • It's an interesting perspective, quite different from the ones suggested so far. Perhaps a little too profound to explain this whimsical and playful conclusion: To furious masters, what helpeth fair speeches? Flies caught, or not caught, up go boys' breeches ! – Mari-Lou A Nov 9 '14 at 7:37

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