From Nordan Symposia
Jump to navigationJump to search



Gadfly is a term for people who upset the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just being an irritant.

The term "gadfly" (Ancient Greek: μυο̃ψ, myops)[1] was used by Plato in the Apology[2] to describe Socrates' relationship of uncomfortable goad to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. The Bible also references the gadfly in terms of political influence; The Book of Jeremiah (46:20, Darby Bible) states "Egypt is a very fair heifer; the gad-fly cometh, it cometh from the north." The term has been used to describe many politicians and social commentators.

During his defense when on trial for his life, Socrates, according to Plato's writings, pointed out that dissent, like the tiny (relative to the size of a horse) gadfly, was easy to swat, but the cost to society of silencing individuals who were irritating could be very high. "If you kill a man like me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me," because his role was that of a gadfly, "to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth."

In modern and local politics, gadfly is a term used to describe someone who persistently challenges people in positions of power, the status quo or a popular position.[3] The word may be uttered in a pejorative sense, while at the same time be accepted as a description of honorable work or civic duty.[4]


[f. GAD n.1]
  • 1. The popular name of a fly which bites and goads cattle, esp. a fly of the genus Tabanus or of the genus {Oe}strus; a bot-fly, breeze.
1626 T. H. Caussin's Holy Crt. 120 It was a bull stung with a Gad-fly. 1727-46 THOMSON Summer 499 Light fly his slumbers, if perchance a flight Of angry gadflies fasten on the herd. 1831 YOUATT Horse xiii. (1843) 289 A species of gad-fly, the {oe}strus equi, is in the latter part of the summer exceedingly busy about horses. 1841-4 EMERSON Ess. Ser. I. i. (1876) 25 The nomads of Africa were constrained to wander by the attacks of the gadfly, which drives the cattle mad.
  • 2. fig. One who irritates, torments, or worries another. Also (after L. {oe}strus), an irresistible impulse to some course of action.
1649 G. DANIEL Trinarch., Hen. IV, cccxlvii, Rather then have the Gad-flyes of an ill-Disposed Army on their shoulders feed. 1807-8 W. IRVING Salmag. (1824) 243 It is our misfortune to be frequently certain critical gad-flies. 1864 LOWELL Fireside Trav. 314 Bitten with the Anglo-Saxon gadfly that drives us all to disenchant artifice.
  • 3. With allusion to GAD v. a. In phrase to have a gad-fly: to be fond of ‘gadding about’.
1591 LYLY Sappho II. iii, My mistresse, I thinke, hath got a gadfly, never at home, and yet none can tell where abroade. 1754 RICHARDSON Grandison I. viii, You have neither wings to your shoulder, nor gad-fly in your cap: you love home.
b. A person who is constantly ‘gadding about’.
1614 BEAUM. & FL. Wit. at Sev. Weapons IV. ii, Where are those gad-flies going? to some junket now. 1754 RICHARDSON Grandison I. xviii. 125 Your Harriet may turn gad-fly, and never be easy but when she is forming parties.
  • 4. attrib., as gad-fly time; gad-fly haunted adj.
1846 C. G. PROWETT Prometh. Bound 28 The gadfly-haunted maid, whose charms have power To smite Jove's heart with love. 1893 D. JORDAN (‘Son of the Marshes’) Forest Tithes, etc. 197 In gadfly time it was a fine sight to see a herd of cattle charging along.