Q: I heard Pat say on Iowa Public Radio that the earliest example for “a fly in in the ointment” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 19th century. I thought the expression came from Ecclesiastes.
A: The expression was probably inspired by Ecclesiastes 10:1, but as far as we know, that exact phrase—“a fly in the ointment”—doesn’t appear in any English translation of the Bible, nor in any of the Latin, Greek, or Hebrew texts.
In the King James Version of 1611, for example, the verse reads: “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.”
And here’s Ecclesiastes 10:1 in the Leningrad Codex, dating from around 1010, the oldest surviving complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible:
זבובי מות יבאיש יביע שמן רוקח יקר מחכמה מכבוד סכלות מעט
The passage could be translated as “Dead flies make the perfumer’s oil stink, as does a little folly a reputation for wisdom and honor.”
When an early version of “a fly in the ointment” appeared in a collection of 17th-century sermons, the expression meant something that spoils what otherwise would have been a success:
“the pharisees did the will of god in giving alms, but that which was a dead fly in the ointment, was, that they did not aim at gods glory, but vain-glory.” From A Body of Practical Divinity (1686), by Thomas Watson, a Puritan preacher. Watson’s use of “dead fly” is clearly an allusion to Ecclesiastes 10:1.
The earliest OED example is from “Poor Relations,” a humorous essay by Charles Lamb (London Magazine, May 1823). We’re expanding the citation here:
“A poor relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature, … —Agathocles’ pot,—a Mordecai in your gate,—a Lazarus at your door,—a lion in your path,—a frog in your chamber,—a fly in your ointment,—a mote in your eye.”
Lamb’s inclusion of “a fly in your ointment” among various expressions derived from the Bible suggests that he too is alluding to Ecclesiastes 10:1.
The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the expression means “some small or trifling circumstance which spoils the enjoyment of a thing, or detracts from its agreeableness.” Most of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult agree with that general definition, though the circumstance may not be small or trifling.