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:
The (originally Italian) idiom paraphrased as “needle in a bottle of hay” is “a Marica por Rávena”, i.e. looking for a particular woman named Maria in Ravenna, where Maria is a very common name. https://t.co/9zvw3kII6S
— Bez Thomas (@BezPublic) June 7, 2018
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.]