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fly-by-night (plural fly-by-nights)

  1. A creature which flies at night; a nocturnal flier or traveler.
  2. (often attributive) One who departs or flees at night in order to avoid creditors, law enforcement etc.
    Do not give your credit card number to that fly-by-night operation.
  3. (idiomatic, derogatory) A person or business that appears and/or disappears rapidly, appearing untrustworthy, or giving an impression of transience.
    • 1917, Rose Wilder Lane, chapter 22, in Henry Ford’s Own Story:
      The automobile industry rose almost overnight. Orders poured into the offices of companies already organized; new companies were formed by dozens, capitalized at millions of dollars. Fly-by-night concerns sprang up like mushrooms, flooded the country with stock-selling schemes, established factories where parts of motor cars, bought elsewhere, were assembled.
    • 1922, Sinclair Lewis, chapter 4, in Babbitt, New York, N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Company, →OCLC:
      True, it was a good advertisement at Boosters' Club lunches, and all the varieties of Annual Banquets to which Good Fellows were invited, to speak sonorously of [] a thing called Ethics, whose nature was confusing but if you had it you were a High-class Realtor and if you hadn't you were a shyster, a piker, and a fly-by-night.
    • 1998 January 24, Bill Clinton, Presidential Radio Address[1]:
      Second, it will ensure that when fly-by-night providers go bankrupt, Medicare is at the top of the list of debts to be repaid. And finally, it will bring down costs by allowing Medicare to purchase goods and services at a competitive price.
  4. (idiomatic, derogatory) A traveling businessman or tradesman.

Usage notes[edit]

The phrase implies that the quality of work done or goods sold is shoddy enough that the person responsible must leave town under cover of darkness to evade angry customers, or sometimes legal authorities. The earliest use of the phrase is said to have been a reproach for women, signifying that she was a witch.[1] The modern usage first appeared in 1823.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Douglas Harper (2001–2023), “fly-by-night”, in Online Etymology Dictionary.