Needle In a Haystack

Meaning:

This phrase is said about things that are very difficult to find.

Example: I lost the remote control for the TV somewhere in the living room and I can’t seem to find it anywhere. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack! I guess I’ll be stuck on the golfing channel until I can find it.

In other words, he’s having great difficulty finding the TV remote.

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
Going around in circles
A wild goose chase
A boy looking for a needle in a haystack.
That’s a big needle, alright.

The Origin Of ‘Needle In a Haystack’

Have you ever lost something like say, your car keys or a remote control for the TV, and even though you search every nook and cranny, you just can’t seem to find them anywhere? Yeah, that’s pretty common. Searching for these lost items, as the saying goes, is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But how hard is that to do, really?

On a show called MythBusters (they test certain myths to see whether they are confirmed, plausible, or false), this old saying was eventually tackled, and do you know what happened?

They didn’t want to test the difficulty of finding a needle in a haystack because that would obviously be very hard to do. Instead, there were two teams and each team made a contraption that would help them locate the needle through all the hay. The result was that even with these contraptions, it still took around 6 hours to finish. So if you ever lose a needle in a big pile of straw, it’s not worth the time to search for it. Just… go get another one.

Anyways, let’s talk about how old this phrase is. Thomas More is said to have used a variant from of it in the year 1532:

“To go looking for a needle in a meadow.”

As far as I know, that’s the earliest known appearance of this expression in print, though the wording is a bit different than the form that’s used today. The modern version of this saying (with the words ‘needle in a haystack’), the earliest I could find it is in a book titled The Complete Works of Washington Irving, published in the year 1834:

“If I want to find any particular article, it is, in the language of an humble but expressive saying, — ‘looking for a needle in a haystack.’ “

With that said, if this expression goes back to 1532, that would mean it’s at least 487 years old.


Example Sentence(s)

  1. Dennis is looking for an apartment that’s in a better location and is also cheaper than his current one. So far, finding one that meets these requirements has been like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Note: The origin of many common idioms is unclear. In cases like this, what you’ll usually see on a phrase’s page are the explanations that exist that talk about how it may have originated. If no explanation is listed, then there will usually be a quote of the expression that can give you an idea on how old it is.