Q: The other day I read that someone volunteered to help by “flyering,” as in handing out flyers. It’s not in my dictionary. How about yours?
A: It’s not in any of our standard dictionaries either. Nor is it in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.
But standard dictionaries do have entries for a similar usage: “leaflet” as a verb meaning to distribute leaflets, with “leafleting” as the present participle. And the OED has an entry for “leafleting” as a noun meaning the distribution of leaflets.
Although “flyering” isn’t recognized by standard dictionaries, the collaborative Wiktionary has entries for the noun “flyering” (the distribution of flyers) as well as the verb “flyer” (to distribute flyers).
And we’ve seen hundreds of American and British examples for “flyering”—in municipal laws restricting the distribution of flyers, appeals for volunteers to hand out flyers, ads for such jobs, university regulations, and so on.
For example, the University of California at Santa Barbara has a formal process to “request flyering in the residence halls.”
And the Cornwall Council in England has an application for the “Distribution of Free Printed Material (Flyering)” in Newquay Town Centre, and offers “a chargeable service to support Flyering applications.”
An archived Reddit page from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign offers “Tips and Ideas for Flyering” by someone who “just finished my first flyering experience.”
PureGym, a chain of fitness clubs in the UK, has advertised on the employment website Indeed for “Face-to-face promotion and flyering” jobs in Bury, England.
Also, myjobsearch.com has this description of such work: “A flyer distributor hands out flyers to promote events, venues or establishments. The job is referred to as ‘flyering’ in the trade.”
And Denver Door2Door Advertising offers “Neighborhood Flyering Services” as the “affordable alternative to direct mail marketing.”
When the noun “flyer” showed up in English in the 15th century, according to the OED, it referred to a “living thing (e.g. a bird or insect) that propels itself with wings; often preceded by some qualifying adj., as high, etc.”
The earliest Oxford example is from Promptorium Parvulorum, an English-Latin dictionary written around 1440: “Flyare, volator.” (The author is said to be a medieval monk known as Galfredus Grammaticus, or Geoffrey the Grammarian.)
The first citation for the term used to mean an aviator is from the 1934 second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language: “Flier, flyer, an airman.”
The noun meaning a leaflet, spelled “flier” or “flyer” and defined as “a small handbill,” showed up in the late 19th century.
The earliest OED example is from the Dec. 21, 1889, issue of the Literary World, an American weekly magazine: “Inserting gaily-colored advertising fliers in the body of the magazine.”
Two earlier terms, “flying sheet” (1769) and “fly-sheet” (1833), also referred to such handouts. The sense of the adjective “flying” here originally referred to a tale or rumor that flies about, according to Oxford.
The OED defines the handbill sense of “leaflet” as a “single sheet of paper, folded or unfolded, containing printed matter, such as advertising or public or political information, and typically distributed free in public places or door-to-door.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from the June 4, 1860, issue of the Daily News in London: “Some of the children … had in their possession leaflets with pictures and prayers in the French language upon them.”
The first OED citation for the noun “leafleting” (distributing leaflets) is from The Psychological Warfare Division (1945), an account of the Anglo-American unit’s operations in World War II:
“The one remaining problem was the inaccuracy of the leafleting.”
The verb “leaflet” (to distribute leaflets) showed up in the early 1960s. The first Oxford citation is from the Sept. 6, 1962, issue of the Concord (MA) Enterprise: “Mrs. Boardman has leafleted at the gates of American Optical.”
Is “flyering” the new “leafleting”?
Well, “leafleting” is nearly five times as popular as “flyering” in the News on the Web corpus, a database of billions of words from online newspapers and magazines.
We don’t recall using either term, but we’d go with “leafleting” if the occasion were to arise.
We wonder, though, if “flyering” or “leafleting” will be around much longer, as more and more handouts go digital and become “spamming.”
Speaking of which, when the word “Spam” showed up in the 1930s, it was the “proprietary name of a type of tinned meat consisting chiefly of pork,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first citation is from the July 1, 1937, issue of the Squeal, a trade magazine published by Hormel: “In the last month Geo. A. Hormel & Co. … launched the product Spam.”
The journal credited Kenneth Daigneau, a New York actor and brother of a Hormel vice president, with thinking up the name:
“Seems as if he had considered the word a good memorable trade-name for some time, had only waited for a product to attach it to.”
In the early 1990s, the OED says, “spam” became slang for “irrelevant or inappropriate postings to an Internet newsgroup, esp. messages sent to a large number of newsgroups simultaneously, often for advertising purposes.”
The dictionary’s first citation is from the May 30, 1994, issue of Network World: “Internet users suffered another ‘spam attack’ last week, this time from a Florida public-access host user who flooded Usenet conferences with ads for a thigh-reducing cream.”
Now, according to the dictionary, “spam” is chiefly slang for “similar unsolicited electronic mail, esp. when sent to individuals as part of a mass-mailing.”
Here’s an OED email example from the Aug. 7, 2000, issue of the Times (London): “Don’t worry. It sounds like some stupid spam to me.”
Meanwhile, “spam” showed up as a slang verb meaning to “flood (a network, esp. the Internet, a newsgroup, or individuals) with a large number of unsolicited postings, or multiple copies of the same posting.”
The first Oxford example is from the July 25, 1994, issue of Time: “What the Arizona lawyers did that fateful April day was to ‘Spam’ the Net, a colorful bit of Internet jargon meant to evoke the effect of dropping a can of Spam into a fan and filling the surrounding space with meat.”
Finally, the use of the slang noun “spamming” for the “practice of sending irrelevant, inappropriate, or unsolicited postings or e-mails over the Internet, esp. indiscriminately and in very large numbers.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the April 28, 1994, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle:
“People around the world started flooding Canter and Siegel’s mailbox, sending junk faxes to the fax number that was in the ad, and basically doing everything possible to overload them. (This is known as spamming.)”