It’s time for another animal-themed idiom (why are there so many, I wonder?) – ‘fly in the ointment’. Not the most pleasant sounding of phrases, you can’t help but picture the expression in its literal sense, with a helpless fly lolloping in a puddle of liquid trying desperately to escape. Thankfully that’s not what ‘fly in the ointment’ means, and in fact its usage is far more interesting.
What does ‘fly in the ointment’ mean?
When you say something or indeed someone is a ‘fly in the ointment’, you mean that it/they are a small yet annoying component of the bigger picture. For example, say you’ve organised a fantastic day out to the beach which you’ve been looking forward to all summer, but you learn that your friend’s annoying brother is coming along. Or, to take the beach example again, the big day has arrived but there’s no ice cream left when you want one. So essentially, a ‘fly in the ointment’ is a small yet significant spoiling of something that should have been good.
At first glance, the idiomatic meaning of ‘fly in the ointment’ seems fairly consistent with the literal words; flies are definitely annoying and can certainly spoil the moment (flies at a picnic, anyone?) But where does the ointment fit into it? Let’s find out.
‘Fly in the ointment’ origins
Every dictionary and linguistic text book points to the same origin of ‘fly in the ointment’; the King James Bible of 1611. Found in Ecclesiastes 10:1, the phrase is constructed differently from how we know it today: ‘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.’
It’s easy enough to see that the fly in this case is literally ruining some medicinal ointment, but how did people later associate this phrase with small annoyances in general?
Linguistics expert David Crystal suggests that this evolution stems from ‘ointment’, which at the time of the King James Bible, had very strong religious ties. ‘Ointment’ is described as ‘holy’ and ‘precious’ in the Bible, implying that its properties were much more sacrosanct than we think today. Therefore the story goes that flies, coupled with sacred ointment, are a very bad combination indeed – a devilish mixture of good and evil.
Further down this idiom’s journey in 1707, we start to see ‘fly in the ointment’ take shape. Gary Martin, writing for phrases.org, locates this idiom in A Practical Treatise Concerning Humility by John Norris: ‘‘Tis that dead fly in the ointment of the Apothecary’. Martin explains that this is the first recorded instance of ‘fly in the ointment’ in it’s modern-day syntax. It’s almost identical to the phrase found in the King James Bible, so how did the shift in structure come about? And is this phrase is being used literally or idiomatically?
Back to Crystal, he explains that John Norris’s use of ‘fly in the ointment’ must have been in the idiomatic sense, because he appears to be deliberately misquoting or paraphrasing the original extract from the King James Bible. By restructuring the phrase, John Norris displays that he wanted to adapt the intention of ‘fly in the ointment’ from its usage in the King James Bible. So we can see the phrase is starting to become a container for a wider meaning, which is what idioms are all about. And since the appearance in 1707, ‘fly in the ointment’ was consistently structured in this way and used to describe generic annoyances.
In under a hundred years, ‘fly in the ointment’ went from meaning a specific ruining of a holy substance, to a more generic term that helped solidify the idiom we use today. This is an incredibly quick semantic transformation, which seemingly came about by a deliberate change in syntax.
Cambridge University Press – Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms – 2006
David Crystal – Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language – 2010
Patrick Hanks – Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations – 2013
Gary Martin – http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/fly-in-the-ointment.html – 2016