Idioms: “A needle in a haystack”

By Kaitlin Strohschein

In Bellevue, it is rather difficult to locate a haystack. Finding a needle within one is well nigh impossible. However, even under the best of circumstances, the authors of the above idiom suggest that finding “a needle in a haystack” would be difficult under the best of circumstances. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, when the phrase first appeared, in the early 1500s, the elusive needle was in a meadow, rather than a haystack.

In 1530, Thomas More made one of the earliest references to meadow-needle-searching, “To seke out one lyne in all hys bookes wer to go looke a nedle in a meadow.”

A little less than three centuries after More’s comment, “haystack” replaced “meadow” as the needle’s location, and it has been its whereabouts ever since.

According to Encarta Encyclopedia, hay is a “term applied to forage plants that are used to make cured feed for livestock.” Grass naturally rots, or dries out, and loses its nutrients, but since hay is dried under special conditions, it keeps well, and can feed livestock all year round.

Hay, like meadow grass, is similar in size and shape to a needle. A massive stack of hay, therefore, provides an ideal needle hiding spot.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the phrase is not exclusively found in the English language. Other cultures have common phrases with similar meanings.

However, regardless of language, the meaning of the idiom is the same: the item being metaphoricly compared to the needle in the haystack is very difficult to locate.