'A Fly on the Wall' Hears Everything

27 July, 2019

Now Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

On today's show, we talk about something found all over the world – the fly.

When you spend time outdoors in nice weather, you usually come across a fly or two or ... many!

Flies perform an important job in nature. They break down a lot of organic materials. Plus, farmers can use their larvae as very cheap food sources for animals.

A scientist holds black soldier fly maggots at a research center in the U.S. state of Georgia.
A scientist holds black soldier fly maggots at a research center in the U.S. state of Georgia.

Those are really good things. But let's be honest: Flies are annoying! They fly around our heads. They lay eggs in our trash and leave germs in our food. And they are so common that we often do not notice them. Once inside a building, they stick to the walls and seemingly watch the goings-on around them ... secretly.

And that brings us to today's expression – to be a fly on the wall.

"A fly on the wall" is a person who observes a situation without being noticed or without interfering.

This expression has appeared in different forms in many old stories.Take for example, some lines from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet from the late 1590s.

The language does not take the exact form of the expression "fly on the wall." However, some experts suggest that the meaning of the expression is there. And so, the expression as we know it today began to take shape.

Okay, here is the set up. Romeo wants to see Juliet's lovely hand and kiss her soft, red lips. But he can't. He is banished. The flies, however, are free. They can get as close as they want to Juliet. And Romeo sounds a bit upset about that.

Now, let's hear that selection from an 1821 version of Romeo and Juliet:

Still blush, as thinking their own kisses sin;/ But Romeo may not; he is banished / Flies may do this, when I from this must fly / They are free men, but I am banished.

Today "fly on the wall" remains a commonly used phrase.

When you are a "fly on the wall," you are eavesdropping. You are listening in. You are a bystander, a witness and, sometimes, a spy.

As an adjective, "fly-on-the-wall" describes a style of filmmaking. Filmmakers and videographers often use the fly-on-the-wall method for reality shows and documentaries.

The filmmakers tell the subjects to ignore the cameras and filming crew. Even if the camera is clearly visible, the film subjects usually get used to the cameras and forget they are there.

Now, let's listen to this conversation between two roommates.

I am SO happy it's Friday!

Hey, do you want to see a documentary that just came out? It's playing at the movie theater near our apartment.

Sure. What's it about?

It's a documentary about the lives of elephants! The filmmakers used really small cameras and shot it fly-on-the-wall style. So, you really feel like you're just hanging out with the elephants.

Sounds great. I love elephants!

Me too!


Now, we will use this expression in a natural conversation. For that, I have invited Kelly Jean Kelly into the studio with me.

Welcome, Kelly! Hi, Anna. How are you? I'm good. How are you? Good, thank you. Thanks for helping to discuss the expression "fly on the wall." That is a good expression. It's a very good expression. When I think about when I would use "fly on the wall" -- I think about conversations that are kind of secret – that I'm not supposed to be listening to. Exactly. So you're kind of eavesdropping. You're listening in. Exactly. And the people don't know you're there. Exactly. Like a fly. Like a fly. I'm thinking about, you know, some friends of mine just had a big fight. And I would like to be a fly on the wall for that fight and hear what they were saying.

And that's all the time we have today.

Practice using the expression "fly on the wall" in the Comments Section.

Until next time ... I'm Anna Matteo.

And I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

Don't you wish that you could be a fly on the wall
A creepy little sneaky little fly on the wall
All my precious secrets, yeah
You'd know them all
Don't you wish that you could be a fly on the wall...

Ibrahim Onafeko wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson and Anna Matteo were the editors. Miley Cyrus sings "Fly on the Wall" at the end of the show.


Words in This Story

cheap adj. not costing a lot of money

annoying adj. causing slight anger

secret adj. kept hidden from others : known to only a few people : secretly adv.

banish v. : to force (someone) to leave a country as punishment : to send (someone or something) away

selectionn. the act of choosing something or someone from a group

eavesdrop v. to listen secretly to what is said in private

bystander n. one who is present but not taking part in a situation or event

style n. a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed

documentary n. a presentation (such as a film or novel) expressing or dealing with factual events

creepy adj. annoyingly unpleasant

precious adj. greatly loved, valued, or important