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This is a passage from Dickens’ Little Dorrit, chapter 11. Emphasised words relate to the question below.

‘Ah Heaven, then,’ said she. ‘When the boat came up from Lyons, and brought the news that the devil was actually let loose at Marseilles, some fly-catchers swallowed it. But I? No, not I.’

‘Madame, you are always right,’ returned the tall Swiss. ‘Doubtless you were enraged against that man, madame?’

‘Ay, yes, then!’ cried the landlady, raising her eyes from her work, opening them very wide, and tossing her head on one side. ‘Naturally, yes.’

‘He was a bad subject.’

‘He was a wicked wretch,’ said the landlady, ‘and well merited what he had the good fortune to escape. So much the worse.’

What does the term fly-catchers above mean?

Also: What does it mean to say "well merited what he had the good fortune to escape"? What is well merited here? The good fortune? If he was a wicked wretch then why was his escape well merited?.

I fail to understand the meaning of the above sentences.

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  • 1
    It's not clear what the landlady means by fly-catchers, but it's a reference to people 'swallowing' (accepting) the news without question. She says that Rigaud well deserved the conviction for murder which he managed to escape, apparently because the evidence against him was not considered strong enough. Mar 24 at 9:25
  • It is probably a reference to the venus flytrap -- a pun of sorts.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 24 at 13:00
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    @HotLicks - If such tropical plants were well-known in 19th century France, which I doubt. Mar 24 at 13:03
  • Since this was well before the PC age: fly catchers => frogs => the French...perhaps? Mar 24 at 16:24
  • @KateBunting - There were also wasps that were referred to as "fly catchers" when I was kid.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 24 at 21:07

2 Answers 2

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J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present (1893) has this relevant entry for fly-catcher:

FLY-CATCHER, subs. ... 2. (common). — An open-mouthed ignoramus ; a GAPESEED ["An open-mouthed loiterer"] — SYDNEY SMITH. Fr[ench] gobe-mouche.

Henry Smith, A Dictionary of Terms, Phrases, and Quotations (1895) offers this further comment on gobe-mouche:

Gobe-mouche, or gobe-mouches. {Fr. gober, to gulp, mouche, a fly.} 1. The fly-catcher, a bird; hence, 2, a silly gossip, ready to swallow any news.

Although Dickens's character uses the term fly-catchers rather than the semi-Anglicized gobes-mouches, the author seems to have in mind precisely the idea of "silly gossip[s], ready to swallow any news" that Smith applies to the term gobe-mouche.

The image of a credulous or stupid person as being open-mouthed and as being willing to "swallow anything" (in a figurative sense) is of long standing. If I recall correctly, Aristophanes in The Clouds has the character Socrates habitually walk around open mouthed and staring upward—with unpleasant results.


For completeness, I will simply reiterate what Kate Bunting wrote hours ago in a comment beneath the posted question: "well merited" in this context means "fully deserved." The speaker is saying that "the devil" [Rigaud] fully deserved that which he had managed to avoid by good luck—namely, punishment for his wickedness.

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  • Well spotted, Sven! Dickens also uses the expression bad subject, a literal translation of the French mauvais sujet (a worthless person, a bad lot). Mar 24 at 22:13
  • I didn't know the term "fly-catcher" with that meaning but took it to mean just that. The pejorative term "mouth breather" seems to me to be a modern analogue.
    – BoldBen
    Mar 24 at 23:30
  • I think we should use well merited in a positive sense, not something we disapprove of. for example we should write he well merited the scholarship , because he is talented.
    – anjan
    Mar 25 at 8:59
  • Yes, an open-mouthed ignoramus. In that trope, the person would "swallow" everything {tout gober), which would include flies. Today, we'd say: a victim of fake news. (ahem)
    – Lambie
    Mar 29 at 17:59
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There are two literal meaning :

  1. b. A contrivance for catching flies.

1848 Hardy in Hist. Berwickshire Naturalists' Club 2 No. 6. 321 This implement is much used in Cornwall, where it is called the ‘fly-catcher’.

The fly-catcher itself was/is, when filled with flies, a rather revolting thing.

and

  1. A bird that catches flies; in England, usually one of the genus Muscicapa, esp. M. grisola; in America, usually one of the genus Tyrannus, T. Carolinensis or T. pipiri.

hence, in both cases, the figurative use:

figurative.

1708 P. A. Motteux Wks. F. Rabelais (1737) v. xv. 61 Ye scurvy Fly-catchers you! [i.e. lawyers].

1889 Daily News 5 Feb. 5/3 The quidnuncs* and flycatchers.

The sense is then one of a person who will collect and hold or consume bad, salacious, and sensational gossip and news regardless of how repulsive or accurate these items might be.

*A person who constantly asks: ‘What now?’; an inquisitive or nosy person; a gossip.

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  • Could it be the same idea as "mouth-breather" or "slack-jawed yokel"?
    – Stuart F
    Mar 24 at 11:46
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    @StuartF I think those terms connote dullness or stupidity more than the proclivity to latch onto gossip. As a practical matter, there may be some overlap in the categories.
    – user888379
    Mar 24 at 15:50

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