Caught it while it was flying
U 13.616-9: Gerty stifled a smothered exclamation and
gave a nervous cough and Edy asked what and she was just going to tell her to
catch it while it was flying but she was ever ladylike in her deportment so she
simply passed it off with consummate tact by saying that that was the
Gerty tells Edy Boardman to catch it while it’s flying, implying that Edy is too slow to have realised what is going on around her: time has passed and the moment has gone. It wasn’t a “ladylike” thing to say, which perhaps explains why documentary evidence for the expression before Joyce is quite hard to find. It seems, however, that he alighted upon a printed example in late 1919 or early 1920, as he listed the phrase in one of his notesheets for the Nausicaa episode.1
The expression had been in use for at least forty years by this time. In 1880 Peter Cobden wrote a short story called “An Angel in a Garret” for the New York Independent. It was widely syndicated, and the text is cited below from the Milan Exchange (Milan, Tennessee) on 25 March of that year. John Claverhouse laments the collapse of the stock market. His aunt Prilly has just dropped by:
It is not clear from the context whether the expression is Irish American, though Water Street in south Manhattan was an area populated by many Irish and Italian immigrants.
Later nineteenth-century examples are predominantly American and in the context of commercial advertisements offering bargain prices for a short period:
For at least ten years, from 1897 until 1910, the variant “Catch it while it flies” was a standard slogan employed by a number of fuel companies to call attention to their special offers:
examples (post-Joyce) are Irish rather than American, such as this one from
William Kelley’s Gemini (1959: p.
In modern use the expression is often found in Irish contexts, though is not clear whether usage has been influenced by the occurrence of the phrase in Ulysses.
1 Phillip F. Herring Joyce’s Ulysses Notesheets in the British Museum (1972), p. 157
Joyce's Allusions >