1. A drop in the bucket
A very small proportion of the whole.
From the Bible, Isaiah 40:15 (King James Version):
“Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.”
‘A drop in the bucket’ is the predecessor of ‘a drop in the ocean’, which means the same thing, and is first found in a piece from The Edinburgh Weekly Journal, July 1802:
“The votes for the appointment of Bonaparte to be Chief Consul for life are like a drop in the ocean compared with the aggregate of the population of France.”
2. A fly in the ointment
A small but irritating flaw that spoils the whole.
These days ointments are chiefly for medicinal use – just the thing for rubbing on that nasty rash. In earlier times, ointments were more likely to be creams or oils with a cosmetic or ceremonial use. Literally, ointment was the substance one was annointed with. There is considerable annointing in Bible stories and it isn’t surprising therefore that this phrase has a biblical origin. Ecclesiastes 10:1 (King James Version) has:
“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.”
Our contempary phrase ‘the fly in the ointment’ didn’t appear until later. The earliest example I have found in print of that precise wording is in John Norris’ A Practical Treatise Concerning Humility, 1707:
‘Tis that dead fly in the ointment of the Apothecary.
3. A house divided against itself cannot stand
Literal meaning (house meaning household).
From the Bible, Matthew 12:25 (King James Version):
“And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”.
4. A labour of love
Work undertaken for the pleasure of it or for the benefit of a loved one.
This phrase has a biblical origin and appears in Thessalonians and Hebrews (King James Version).
Thessalonians 1:2, 1:3:
We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers;
Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father;
For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.
Shakespeare didn’t use the expression ‘labour of love’ in any of his works but it is possible that the writers of the KJV were familiar with his play Love’s Labours Lost, 1588, and that they adapted the expression from that title.
5. A leopard can’t change its spots
Proverbial question, querying the ability of any person or creature to change its innate being.
From the Bible, Jeremiah 13:23 (King James Version):
Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
6. A wolf in sheep’s clothing
Someone who hides malicious intent under the guise of kindliness.
The cautionary advice that one cannot necessarily trust someone who appears kind and friendly has been with us for many centuries. Both Aesop’s Fables and the Bible contain explicit references to wolves in sheep’s clothing. On the face of it, Aesop must have originated the phrase, as his tales are much older than any biblical text. The question is, when did the phrase first become part of the English language?
The version of Aesop’s Fables that is best known to us today is George Fyler Townsend’s 1867 translation, in which he gives the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing fable this way:
Once upon a time a Wolf resolved to disguise his appearance in order to secure food more easily. Encased in the skin of a sheep, he pastured with the flock deceiving the shepherd by his costume. In the evening he was shut up by the shepherd in the fold; the gate was closed, and the entrance made thoroughly secure. But the shepherd, returning to the fold during the night to obtain meat for the next day, mistakenly caught up the Wolf instead of a sheep, and killed him instantly.
The King James Version of the Bible, 1611, gives this warning in Matthew 7:15:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.