Thursday, May 16, 2019


Sometimes you've heard a word in various contexts for a long time and, in the moment, you think you essentially understand it. It comes up  in another context, and once again, you think you've got it. The only problem is that the word seems to have very different, even opposite kinds of meanings in the two examples. If you're like me, you tend to just sort of scratch your head and then forget about it until it comes up somewhere else. But just this once, let's not forget about it and see what happens.

When Roger Stone was recently at the top of the news cycle, I heard him described several times as a gadfly. I assumed this to mean something like a self-aggrandizing person who always manages to insert himself into the conversation in an annoying way. I get the image of a fly buzzing around one's face.

But even with the most rudimentary look into the term, I discovered that there is a more famous gadfly--Socrates. And his role as a gadfly is viewed in a positive light. So what gives?

First, we have to go back to the original meaning of gadfly, in its non-metaphoric sense. It turns out that a gadfly is not a specific fly, it is a general category of fly. The Oxford Pocket Dictionary says that it is a fly that bites livestock, especially a horsefly, botfly or warble fly. Some bite to implant their larvae, others, like the female horsefly, do it to extract blood.

Horse Botfly, Wikipedia

However, when you dig into the etymology of the word, as you can do at the Online Etymology Dictionary, an interesting thing emerges. It seems that the "gad" of gadfly probably comes from the 13th century noun meaning a goad or a sharp-pointed stick used to drive oxen.

But it also appears to have become entangled with (the Etymology Dictionary's phrase, which I love) the verb '"gad," which, although it too goes back in a convoluted way to the pointed stick idea, has come to mean "to rove about." Hence the word "gadabout," meaning a person who wanders around restlessly or aimlessly, especially in the social sphere. It can also mean a traveler, a pleasure seeker. And my sense is that Roger Stone can be described as much by this meaning of 'gad' as he can be of the former.

Socrates at the Louvre

Now, Socrates is another matter. Here is the context in which Socrates described himself as a gadfly, according to Plato in his The Apology of Socrates in the Jowett translation.

I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.

However, not everyone believes that 'gadfly' is the correct interpretation of the Greek here. In a paper by Laura Marshall called "Not a Gadfly: When a Crucial Reading Goes Wrong," she makes the case that Jowett's translation isn't the right one in this instance. She thinks that in this instance, the word μύωψ is more correctly translated as "spur."

When Xenophon uses the word μύωψ, it is in the context of training a sluggish horse to jump; this fits better with the pedagogical goals Socrates’ sees for the god in the Apology: the god is using Socrates to teach the Athenians, not merely to annoy them.

Let's wrap up our excursion into the world of gadflies by a little quote from a novel I discovered in the course of looking into all this, The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller, which is described as a New England prep school novel that is one part The Dead Poets' Society, one part Heathers. (I'd read it.) Here's the quote:

“Do you know what it took for Socrates’ enemies to make him stop pursuing the truth?”


Hemlock, or Conium Maculatum

1 comment:

  1. As usual, you have such an interesting way of making me think about words, Seana.

    I hope this finds you well,