Q From Jonathan in Tokyo: While recently reading an article on the BBC about one of the latest pop stars over here in Japan, I came across the phrase fly in the face: “Her quirkiness and imperfections fly in the face of the conventional view of Japanese culture.” Being an English teacher myself, I anticipate my students asking me to explain the phrase and be asked its origins. It’s something I have never thought about and so I wondered if you could shed some light on the matter.
A You’re in good company, as I suspect few English speakers have stopped to wonder why we should have this odd expression. I must confess to never having done so myself.
The idiom usually refers to something that appears to deny the truth of a statement or belief (“Their actions fly in the face of their claim that they are looking to avoid civilian casualties”). Rather less often, it describes a person who defies someone else or shows disrespect for someone or something (“He is above all a tease. Like Gore Vidal, he likes to fly in the face of received opinions.”) There’s also the much less common and relatively recent derivative fly in the teeth of, which is, I think, solely American.
The first version, from the 1550s, was to fly in a person’s face and its literal meaning was of a dog that attacked by springing at a person. Very early on, it acquired the figurative sense of verbally attacking someone who disagreed with your opinions or your actions, decidedly getting in their face. This is now rare but not yet obsolete:
Don’t fly in their face with it. Don’t try to browbeat them with your point of view.
Independent on Sunday, 9 Aug. 1998.
It’s not clear from the record when the impersonal form took over, but it was at least a century ago.