Why is it that the only context in which we use this word seems to be in referring to something written on it? “Look at the inscription on the fly-leaf” my friend coyly said as she handed me this book at tea last week.


The pencil annotation must have been made about 45 years ago. Better late than never! However, considering the book in question, I think this must have been an office transaction. Probably E. F. C. Ludowyk’s Understanding Shakespeare was my boss’ copy, and all I wanted was surreptitiously to return it, after erasing the feint annotation, to his shelves before he noticed its absence. Some hope! Well actually it does seem he didn’t ever notice, though my chances of returning it to those shelves are now slim to none. Maybe I’ll read it instead: we can always benefit from greater understanding.

I think of the fly-leaf as the carefree twin of the paste-down, that half of the endpaper which is stuck to the board and acts to hold the book block into the case. Apparently it may also mean any leaf (pair of pages) which is unprinted. In well-mannered book work such a leaf would have to appear at the front or the back of the book. Until something happens there we have no real reason to refer to a blank leaf: it’s just blank. Not until something appears there do we discover that we need a word for the place that something occupies.

Unrelated, no doubt, is the fly, which according to Dictionary of Printing (see above under the Print Glossaries tab, is “a boy who takes the printed sheets off the tympan as soon as the pressman turns it up, for the sake of despatch: it was most frequently done with newspapers, as they are always pressed for time, and are obliged to work with the greatest expedition. These boys are not now called devils, as in the time of Moxon, but Flies, or Fly Boys.” To me a fly boy was always a smart aleck.