A Needle In A Haystack

Where does the old idiom “finding a needle in a haystack” come from?

According to my physical copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the phrase originates with Cervantes in Book III Chapter X of Don Quixote, and indeed most searches online state so with authority.

But I just checked my physical copy and the Project Gutenberg version and not only is there no  Book III, the phrase does not appear!

Some sleuthing of other phrases that do appear reveals that “Book III” refers to what is normally called “Part II”, and indeed there in Chapter X of my copy it reads:

…tracking Dulcinea up and down El Toboso will be as bad as looking for a needle in a haystack or for a scholar in Salmanca.

just as promised.  So why isn’t it in the Project Gutenberg version? There it reads:

looking for Dulcinea will be looking for Marica in Ravena, or the bachelor in Salamanca.

which is not the same thing at all. Indeed, the Spanish original seems to read:

buscar a Dulcinea por el Toboso como a Marica por Rávena, o al bachiller en Salamanca.

So the phrase is actually not in the original!  It seems to be due to Cervantes’ English translators who used the phrase as a more familiar [to English ears] version of “to find Maria in Ravena”.  Bez Thomas helped me to figure this out on the Twitters:

So where does the phrase “needle in a haystack” originate?  The OED has two attestations that predate Cervantes:

c1530   T. More Let. Impugnynge J. Fryth in Wks. (1557) 837/2   “To seke out one lyne in all hys bookes wer to go looke a nedle in a medow.”
1592   R. Greene Quip for Vpstart Courtier sig. Ev   “He…gropeth in the dark to find a needle in a bottle of hay.”

Where a “bottle” here means “bundle”.  Apparently the translators were using a 100+ year old phrase!   The “haystack” version is from later:

1779   W. Rogers in J. Sullivan Jrnls. Mil. Exped. (1887) 262   “But agreeably to the old adage it was similar to looking for needles in a hay stack.”

And there you have it.  Even an authority as solid as Bartlett’s occasionally gets things wrong, so it’s good to check!


[Update: Apparently Bartlett’s is full of these errors with respect to Don Quixote: see this article here which details the “haystack” mistake and many more.]

1 thought on “A Needle In A Haystack

  1. Dryson

    Finding the needle in the haystack is really about finding the point that thread a new fabric of space time for humanity to discover to then wear the fabric as a new garb of clothing.

    It’s not so much that I a singular entity in the Universe needs this….all of humanity needs this.

    I have often times wondered about a great many things. Wormholes, Faster Than Light Travel, Time Travel, many aspects of a notion or a need that humans have to better understand, rather how to get to where they are going at a faster rate of velocity.

    But what about life? There are many barriers that religion has set up to hinder asking questions of the self but instead seeking answers from others who simply spin the answers like the arms of a spiral galaxy. But in order for humanity to emerge from on the other side of the worm hole we have to ask a simple question.

    Why Does The Universe Exist?

    What logical reason or purpose, purpose being the key word, would a Universe need stars, planets, comets, suns and black holes for?

    The only asnwer is; to support life within said Universe.

    There is no logical reason for a Universe to exist at all without the presence of life within the Universe. Rocks, minerals and energetic reactions serve no purpose at all if life does not exist in and throughout the Universe. There would be no reason for a Universe to exist because non-biological lifeforms do not need work or a challenge to overcome so that the energy that is created can be consumed in order for the challenge to be completed.

    What challenge does the comet overcome by traveling through the Universe?

    What challenge does life overcome by traveling through the Universe ?

    For planets and suns to exist without life in the Universe being present would not be logical as there is no reason for suns and planets to exist except to support life and create challenges that must be met in order for life to succeed.

    Planets, suns, comets and other celestial bodies in the Universe do not need to create challenges in order to succeed.

    Therefore the single and only reason that a Universe exists is to support and maintain life in the form of many forms from the simple organism to the highly advanced sentient and space faring species across the Universe

    A Universe exists to support life because it was life that created the Universe in the beginning from the Quantum Fibers of the Universe to achieve another jump up the orbital ladder in creating challenges to meet those challenges.

    Life created the Universe in order to exist. Life created the Universe in order to challenge itself to be better and become more than a simple particle in space.

    The thought of life created the Big Bang because Life needed a challenge. What challenge is there for a Universe devoid of life at all? What challenge is there for a Universe devoid of life to not see what life has created in order to meet the greatest challenge of all. Can we create a Universe in order to survive in as being more than just causilities in a realm that did not see light?

    The presence of life in the Universe is no longer a question of if, but where can it be found.

    Life created the Universe in order to achieve its single goal of existing.

    What goal does a Sun have other than to fuel life?
    What goal does the planet have other than to house life?
    What goal does life have other than to create a Universe in order to live in?

    The presence of other Universes would also exist as well as the infinite pool of life than we came from would also have had the same prospect of creating in order to survive, to achieve and to succeed.

    Ask yourself this logically, why would a Universe need to exist if life never existed or even had a chance of existing in the Universe? There is no logical need for a Universe to exist other than to house, nurture and create challenges that life must meet in order to exist.

    The Universe didn’t create us.

    The thoughts of Life arranged the Big Bang so that humans and other life would be born.

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