Variations: Looking for a needle in a haystack, to find a needle in a haystack, finding a needle in a haystack, searching for a needle in a haystack
Origin: Like many phrases in the English language, this one has a literary pedigree. The earliest recording of this common phrase dates back to 1532, found in the works of Renaissance statesman Sir Thomas More: “To seek out one line in all St. Austin’s works were to go look a needle in a meadow.” Almost eighty years later, a variation of the phrase appears in Miguel de Cervantes’s magnum opus, Don Quijote de la Mancha, considered one of the greatest and most influential novels in literature. The book was published in two volumes (the first in 1605, the second one in 1615). In book III, chapter ten, the English translation reads: “As well look for a needle in a bottle of hay.” In this context “bottle” is the old English word for “bundle,” so a better translation would be: “As well look for a needle in a bundle of hay.”
Fast forward about half a century, and the well-known phrase leaped from the figurative to the literal realm. The phrase was the inspiration for 27-year-old Italian artist Sven Sachsalber’s performance piece held at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The artist calls his performance piece “an exercise in literalism — taking an everyday expression and enacting it.” Sachsalber had a large haystack (about 8 feet high, and diameter of 18 feet) placed in the middle of the gallery floor and had Jean de Loisy, the gallery director, hide the needle. The two-day show was streamed on live video to give the entire world, not just art gallery visitors, a glimpse of this artistic hunt. For Sachsalber, the search for the needle is a metaphor for hope: “It’s like playing the lottery. You don’t know if you’re going to win or not. You hope you’re going to win, or why play the lottery? It’s the same thing here, there is always hope. I hope I can find it even if it’s hard.” Starting on the morning of Thursday, November 13, Sachsalber meticulously searched the giant haystack one handful of hay at a time. And it’s a good thing that the artist does not suffer from hay fever. Almost 30 hours later, on Friday evening, the tired but ecstatic artist finally found the proverbial needle — proving that although it is not entirely impossible, it is very time-consuming and tedious.
For further reading: Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris, Harper & Row (1971)
Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Oxford University Press (2000)
Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes (translated by Edith Grossman), Harper (2005)
The Wisdom and Wit of Blessed Thomas More by Sir Thomas More, BiblioBazaar (2009)