fly in the ointment

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A reference to Ecclesiastes 10:1 in the Bible (King James Version; spelling modernized): “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doeth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”[1]



fly in the ointment (plural flies in the ointment)

  1. (idiomatic) Something (especially a minor thing) which ruins or spoils everything else, or makes it less pleasant; a nuisance or problem; a disagreeable or unpleasant detail.
    Synonyms: (slang, vulgar) turd in the punchbowl, worm in the apple, fly in the buttermilk
    • 1807, [Edward Wesley Hare], “Letter V”, in Genuine Methodism Acquitted, and Spurious Methodism Condemned; [] , Rochdale, Lancashire: [] J. Hartley;  [], →OCLC, paragraph 5, page 75:
      And yet, in truth, he was not then a child of God. His pride and uncharitableness, were flies in the ointment.
    • [1833, Elia [pseudonym; Charles Lamb], “Poor Relations”, in The Last Essays of Elia. [], London: Edward Moxon, [], →OCLC, page 10:
      A Poor Relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature,— [] —a fly in your ointment,—a mote in your eye,— [] —the ounce of sour in a pound of sweet.]
    • 1884 March, “Flies in the Ointment”, in T[homas] De Witt Talmage, editor, Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, volume XV, number 3, New York, N.Y.: Frank Leslie’s Publishing House, [], →OCLC, page 302, column 2:
      Not one moment are we to be indolently reconciled to this ever-haunting imperfection of our life-work; but the work itself must be patiently surveyed in its true character. Nothing is gained by pretending there are no flies in the ointment.
    • 1920 March – 1921 February, P[elham] G[renville] Wodehouse, “Work Wanted”, in Indiscretions of Archie, New York, N.Y.: A. L. Burt Company, publishers [], published 1921, →OCLC, page 28:
      Nothing, of course, in this world is perfect; and, rosy as were the glasses through which Archie looked on his new surroundings, he had to admit that there was one flaw, one fly in the ointment, one individual caterpillar in the salad.
    • 1973, David Wevill, “Where the Arrow Falls”, in Other Names for the Heart: New and Selected Poems 1964–1984, Toronto, Ont.: Exile Editions, published 1985, →ISBN, page 63:
      Our gods are the unaccountable, uncontainable facts, the flies in the ointment.
    • 2003, Ron Ross, Bummy Davis vs. Murder, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-fated Prizefighter, New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, →ISBN, page 287:
      Bummy Davis is no longer a pugilist. Willie is very aware of this fact and lets Johnny Attell know that there is a fly in the ointment, and Johnny, who is a very shrewd article, has his chauffeur drive him to Bradford Street so he can change the kid's mind.
    • 2007, Mary G. Hurd, “The Mainstream”, in Women Directors and Their Films, Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, Greenwood Publishing Group, →ISBN, page 22:
      The flies in the ointment are that Harry is a commitment-phobe, and the young doctor, Julian (Keanu Reeves), who is half Erica's age, is smitten with her. Naturally, the obstacles are overcome, and the happy pair is reunited, in a validation of middle-aged romance.
    • 2020 October 31, Vildana Hajric, quoting Yousef Abbasi, “Tech Rout Sends Stocks to Worst Week Since March: Markets Wrap”, in Bloomberg News[1], archived from the original on 5 November 2020:
      Today's action is a reminder of just how fickle markets can be. The earnings themselves were not awful, but the market has priced tech to near perfection and thus one fly – maybe even a fruit fly – in the ointment could perpetuate a sell-off.
    • 2023 August 11, Nicola Davis, “Scientists may be on brink of discovering fifth force of nature”, in The Guardian[2]:
      But Patel said there was a “fly in the ointment”, noting that between the first results and the new data, uncertainty has increased around the theoretical prediction of the frequency.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Holy Bible, [] (King James Version), London: [] Robert Barker, [], 1611, →OCLC, Ecclesiastes 10:1:Dead flies cauſe the oyntment of the Apothecarie to ſend foorth a ſtinking ſauour: ſo doeth a little folly him that is in reputation for wiſedome and honour.

Further reading[edit]