A fly in the ointment


What's the meaning of the phrase 'A fly in the ointment'?

A fly in the ointment is a small but irritating flaw that spoils the whole. In the 20th century the expression has also come to be used to describe a small flaw that comes to light to spoil an otherwise faultless plan.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A fly in the ointment'?

These days ointments are chiefly for medicinal use – just the thing for rubbing on that nasty rash. In earlier times, ointments were more likely to be creams or oils with a cosmetic or ceremonial use. Literally, ointment was the substance one was anointed with. There is considerable anointing in Bible stories and it isn’t surprising therefore that this phrase has a biblical origin. Ecclesiastes 10:1 (King James Version) has:

“Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”

Our contemporary phrase ‘the fly in the ointment’ didn’t appear until later. The earliest example I have found in print of that precise wording is in John Norris’ A Practical Treatise Concerning Humility, 1707:

‘Tis that dead fly in the ointment of the Apothecary.

Trend of a fly in the ointment in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.