Lately I have been “running around like a blue-arsed fly”, a lovely phrase I picked up from my parents during my childhood.
I don’t think there is any doubt about it, the saying must surely come from the buzzing behaviour of the bluebottle, an annoying fly (Calliphora vomitoria) found in many parts of the world.
It’s very much a fly of hot summer weather and rotting food, rubbish and excrement. Even its stop-start buzzing is annoying. Which is all a shame, as it has a pretty metallic blue colour. Here’s a lovely website all about iridescence, featuring the bluebottle and other lustrous marvels.
Why do we call it a bluebottle? My dictionary has no idea. Although I suspect it may come from the old word bot or bott, meaning the larva (maggot) of a botfly, which infests the skin of various mammals, producing warbles (painful, hard swellings). This particularly affects the stomachs of horses or the noses of sheep.
Bott probably comes from the Scots Gaelic word boiteag, which means a maggot. The word maggot itself may come from a Middle English word maddok/mathek from Old Norse mathkr, all meaning “maggot” and related to that other word mawkish, meaning “maggoty”.
My memories of the bluebottle come from the days before fridges, when we kept food in a larder or metal-meshed meat-safe. Our constant fear was maggots from bluebottles. We had roast shoulder of lamb (a cheap, fatty cut) for Sunday dinner (in the middle of the day, we didn’t call it lunch).
The leftover meat was placed on a high shelf and many was the time it was retrieved only to find the white fat moving with cream-coloured maggots. A bit offputting!
But flies are not the only bluebottles. In Britain bluebottle is also a name for the common cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) – not that I would ever have called it that. Another nickname I wouldn’t have used is “bachelor’s button”. Pretty flower, anyway.
Then there are the policemen…
No doubt because of their long blue coats, the early London policemen, known as Peelers after their founder Robert Peel, were also called bluebottles. Perhaps they were rushing around a lot, too…
Fans of the Goons comedy show on radio will recall the Peter Sellers character Bluebottle, not a policeman but a young boy scout who was blown up in every episode.
Wherever English-speaking people have spread in the world, the bluebottle idea has gone with them. In Australia it is a name for a Portuguese man-o’-war jellyfish (Physalia physalis) – not a true jellyfish but a collection of other organisms. Here’s a good blog post on the subject. You can see why they might be called bluebottles…
Although I can’t see why this beautiful tropical butterfly (Graphium sarpedon teredon) is known as a common bluebottle. What a place it must be in Australia and South East Asia, where this is a common sight!
The Australians also have another bluebottle, the blue ant (Diamma bicolor) – which actually isn’t an ant at all but a solitary parasitic wasp.
Finally, and gratuitously, there are blue bottles – and here are some lovely cobalt blue glass apothecary bottles from a South African antiques website. Click on the picture to visit that site and see more images of antique glass bottles.
If you like these bottles, you may like my post A certain shade of blue…