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The meaning and origin of the expression: A fly in the ointment

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A fly in the ointment

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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'?

A fly in the ointmentThese 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.