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.