A fleabag is a run-down and shabby establishment, especially a hotel or other lodging place, and the word often used adjectivally, as in fleabag hotel. So it’s no mystery why fleas are associated with such places. But where does the bag come in?
The original sense of fleabag is a mattress or sleeping bag. The word first appears in The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer, an 1839 novel by Irish writer Charles J. Lever (1806–72):
“Troth and I think the gentleman would be better if he went off to his flea-bag himself.” In my then mystified intellect this west country synonyme for a bed a little puzzled me.
While this is the first known use of fleabag, it’s not the only flea- word so used. The term flea-park is older, coming from an Irish folk song, “De May-Bush,” dating to c. 1790. The song is recorded in John Edward Walsh’s 1847 book Ireland Sixty Years Ago:
Bill Durham, being up de nite afore,
Ri rigidi, ri ri dum de,
Was now in his flea-park, taking a snore,
When he heard de mob pass by his door.
Ri rigidi dum dee!
Walsh, or perhaps the editor of the third edition of 1851 which I consulted, includes this note on flea-park:
“Flea-park."—This appellation of Bill’s bed was no doubt borrowed from the account the Emperor Julian gives of his beard: “I permit little beasts,” said he, “to run about it, like animals in a park,” So that Durham’s “flea-park” was evidently sanctioned by the Emperor’s “—park” The Abbé de Bletterie, who translated Julian’s work, complains that he was accused for not suppressing the image presented by Julian; but adds, very properly, La délicatesse Francaise va-t-elle jusqu’u au falsifier les auteurs! So we say of our author.
Whether or not a French translation of a rather obscure Latin work inspired the word is open to debate (I rather doubt it), but the idea of calling a bed a flea-[noun] was certainly floating about eighteenth-century Ireland.
Barrére and Leland’s 1889 Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant records fleabag as a term for a bed used among prizefighters. By the turn of the twentieth century the word was being used to mean a hotel, as in this example from The Sporting Times of 3 March 1900:
I drove back to seek repose in the before-mentioned flea-bag.
The word picked up steam among soldiers during the First World War, who used it to refer to their sleeping bags, and that cemented its place in the language.
“flea, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
“fleabag, n.,” “fleabag, adj.,” Green’s Dictionary of Slang, Chambers Harrap, 2010.
“fleabag, n.,” Historical Dictionary of American Slang, vol. 1, J. E. Lighter, ed., New York: Random House, 1994.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton