A few dead flies will make even the best perfume stink. In the same way, a little foolishness can ruin much wisdom and honor. —Ecclesiastes 10:1
I used the expression during a family game of euchre on our summer vacation at the cottage. I had a good hand, and I took the first four of five tricks. But on the last one my daughter snuck in there with a higher card to deprive me of the extra point. “Ah, you were the fly in my ointment,” I said.
“What did you say?” my son asked.
“I said that she was the fly in my ointment.”
“I thought that’s what you said. What does that mean?”
“Have you never heard that expression before?”
I turned to my daughter, “Have you?”
Her boyfriend was in the room? “Have you?”
“No.” He looked mystified.
I started to wonder if I’d been saying something wrong over the years, or if the expression was one of those unique to the Ottawa Valley where I grew up. The Valley has many quaint but not universally shared expressions. I turned to my husband, “Have you heard of that?” He nodded that he had. Phew, I thought. I’m not losing my mind!
“What does it mean?” my son asked again.
I thought it would have been obvious, but apparently not. I said, “Well, it’s the dark spot in something that is otherwise perfect, or a damaging element in something that is otherwise healing. One small thing that harms a big good thing, or is just plain annoying.”
“That makes no sense. How could a fly get in the ointment anyway? It’s in a tube,” my daughter said.
Ah ha! We’d hit the stumbling block. People of my generation can envision a vat or tub of ointment with a dark fly in the light colour, buy in the mind’s eye of people my daughter’s age, ointment comes only in a tube.
“At the time the expression came to be ointment came in pots or tubs,” I said. “Picture a container of white ointment with a dark fly in it.”
“But why would you care if you had a fly in your ointment?” my daughter insisted.
Why do I care if there’s a fly in my ointment? Because a little foolishness can ruin much wisdom and honour, and there is foolishness going on right now that is ruining much wisdom and honour.
I know the negative thoughts and actions taking place all around us these days don’t represent the thoughts and actions of most people, but they’re flies in the ointment. Those few people who say them, think them, act on them make life stink to high heaven for all of us. The dark spots in an otherwise happy world, the damaging elements in an otherwise healing world, the small stains blemish the big picture.
Out damned spot!