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A fly in the ointment

Posted by ESC on October 31, 2002

In Reply to: A Fly in the Ointment posted by Guy on October 30, 2002

: Can anyone tell me the origin of this phrase?

This first source says that the phrase came from an older one -- "a fly in the amber." But then the next two sources say "fly in the ointment" comes from the Bible.

FLY IN THE OINTMENT - "This modern version suggests that something unpleasant may come or has come to light in a proposition or condition that is almost too pleasing; that there is something wrong somewhere. The older version is 'a fly in the amber,' meaning merely that something is as unexpectedly out of place as the fly that one occasionally finds embedded in fossilized amber. Possibly the substitution of 'ointment' for 'amber' may have been through association of ideas, for 'amber' was originally used in the sense of 'ambergris,' and ambergris is used in some perfumed ointments." From 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions from White Elephants to Song and Dance by Charles Earle Funk (Galahad Book, New York, 1993). This book is a compilation of an older series of books written by Mr. Funk.

And from a second reference: "A hitch in one's plans; an obstacle. The phrase is derived from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 10:1): 'Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savor; so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.'" From the The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Wings Books, Originally New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

"For five centuries now 'a fly in the ointment' has meant a small defect that spoils something valuable or is a source of annoyance." From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

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