Has this idiom ever come up in any of your conversations? You may have heard this idiom somewhere and you wonder what it means.
You probably even have a close guess in your mind. You have come to the right place to confirm your guesses and get even more answers.
This article is here to give you the meaning of ‘Needle in a haystack’ and 15 other phrases with similar idioms.
Meaning of Needle in a Haystack
What does it mean when you are looking for a needle in a haystack? You don’t want to be given this nearly impossible task.
You’ll only get frustrated again and again till you realize it is hopeless to try… or you will realize this from your first glance at the haystack. This is what the expression simply means.
When something is compared to searching for a needle in a haystack, it means it is either impossible or extremely difficult to achieve.
Origin of Needle in a Haystack
In ancient tales, farmers used to make huge bales of haystack and it would be hard to find virtually anything in them.
Asides from the small size of needles which makes them difficult to find in even more obvious places, needles used to be made of wood or bone and having the same color as hay.
Finding such needles in a haystack would be impossible and that was how this idiom was coined.
Unlike many English idioms that went out of use with the passage of time, ‘Needle in a haystack’ has retained its existence in modern English after gaining popularity over many centuries.
It is reportedly traced back to an anthology written in Ancient Middle East in the ninth century. The term is said to have been translated from Arabic and Persian sayings.
Although used in a different form, the first known recorded usage of this idiom is seen in the books of Thomas More in the early 1500s. ‘Needle in a meadow’ is how it was used and it referred to a nigh-impossible task.
In another different form, The idiom also surfaces in the early 17th century in a novel by Miguel de Cervantes titled ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’.
As used in the influential novel, the saying goes ‘Looking for a needle in a bottle of hay.’
15 Similar Phrases To ‘Needle in a Haystack’
- Around in circles
- Needle in a stack of needles
- Scarce as hen’s teeth
- Wild goose chase
- APB on Big Bird (Origin: Sesame Street)
- Lost cause
- Wasted efforts
- A futile pursuit
- A bootless errand
- A foolish quest
- Running on a treadmill
- Black cat in a coal cellar
- Going nowhere.
Around in circles
Searching for a needle in a haystack should feel like running around in circles. Both expressions do not mean the same thing literally but figuratively.
There is a very low chance that you will ever hear a person talk about looking for a needle in a haystack and mean it literally. However, ‘Around in circles’ can be used literally.
This is a perfectly correct synonym and you can use this in virtually every context you find ‘Needle in a haystack’.
When you say a person is running around in circles, it means the person is going nowhere. The person is probably chasing something or trying to do something that is impossible or the person is taking the wrong steps.
Needle in a stack of needles
This is another way to pass the same message without saying the same thing. This is one of the different ways in which ‘Needle in a haystack’ has been used in the past.
It has also been used as ‘Needle in a meadow’ as seen in Thomas More’s works and as ‘Needle in a bottle of hay’ as seen in Miguel de Cervantes’ novel.
Wherever you find this, it always means something is impossible or just very difficult to do. This should be your first choice if what makes a pursuit impossible is the number of other things surrounding its achievement.
Scarce as hen’s teeth
This is used differently from ‘Needle in a haystack’ but it has a very close meaning. When something is like a needle in a haystack, the hopes of achieving it is slim.
When something you are looking for is scarce as a hen’s teeth, it is either impossible or difficult to find.
One of the differences between the usage of these idioms is you can compare several kinds of purposeful actions to looking for a needle in a haystack, you can say a particular thing or a goal is as scarce as a hen’s teeth.
Hens don’t have teeth so you should know how scarce this idiom has been intended to mean. It may also be used for something that is just impossible to find.
Wild goose chase
This is very similar to running in circles. You know that you are only going around without getting any further in your pursuit.
When you say a person is going on a wild-goose chase, the person is pursuing a goal that cannot be met or he or she is looking for something that does not exist.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be about running after something. It may refer to consistent efforts being put into the achievement of a purpose that is technically impossible.
APB on Big Bird (Origin: Sesame Street)
This is my best option on the list and it will probably be yours too. However, it only sounds nice and the probability that you will be understood is very low unless you are talking to a police officer.
If you are looking for a simpler way to say ‘Needle in a haystack’, this is not the option you are looking for. It is even more complex than ‘Needle in a haystack.’
You can say this if you are simply looking for another way to pass the same message.
An APB (All-Points Bulletin) is a set of information about a suspect, often used to make the public be on the lookout for a wanted criminal.
‘Big Bird’ refers to a yellow bird in an old American kids TV show titled ‘Sesame Street.’ Imagine putting a target on the back of an imaginary character. Everyone will only keep looking for the character but will never find it.
You can use this to refer to an impossible pursuit.
This is the use of simple English in conveying your message and it may be your favorite option unless you want to sound clever.
This word is only a correct synonym when you are talking about a person’s efforts toward achieving a goal.
Calling it hopeless means there is no hope for the purpose to be achieved. While the definition of ‘hopeless’ may not explicitly say ‘impossible’, this is what the word means.
When there is no hope for the achievement of a purpose, then every effort made will seem like you are praying for a miracle.
Have you ever heard of this term before? You may not have heard ‘Lost cause’ before but you must have heard the word ‘Cause’ in a similar context before.
When a person says he or she is doing something for a cause, then the efforts are being made for a purpose.
If the efforts or sacrifices of a person are being made for a cause, then the person must clearly see how those efforts will lead to the stated ‘Cause’ or ‘Purpose’.
With this, statement out can probably guess what ‘Lost cause’ means.
When a person is doing something for a lost cause, it means the person’s efforts are towards a purpose that can no longer be achieved.
The sacrifices clearly no longer lead to the achievement of the initially stated purpose, therefore the efforts made are pointless.
This is similar to ‘Lost cause’. When the purpose of the action is lost, it is like losing an excuse.
You can do a lot of seemingly wrong things and get away with them if you can show people how those wrong actions are for the greater good.
However, when it becomes clear that your wrong actions can no longer lead to the achievement of that greater good, they will no longer tolerate your actions toward a lost cause.
‘Wasted efforts’ should be used in the past tense. You should use this when you are referring to efforts or sacrifices that have already been made.
For example, a certain search may feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. You can say that the search was a wasted effort.
While this does not imply that something is impossible, it clearly shows that the goal or purpose was not achieved.
Even if something is very possible to do, if anyone is sure of failure ahead, then he or she would know not to make further attempts.
Once again, the best way to pass your message without having to explain yourself is to use simple English.
That way, you will be automatically understood and you don’t have to explain what you mean by ‘Needle in a haystack’ or ‘APB on Big Bird’.
When you say something is impossible, you may have to say why you think so unless it is very obvious that the pursuit is hopeless.
You will just be reminding your listener that all efforts made toward achieving that goal will be futile.
A futile pursuit
You can consider this a use of different English words in sending the same message.
While this may not be an English phrase that is used every day, there is a 90% chance that your listener will understand this instead of saying ‘Needle in a haystack’
A pursuit refers to the purpose of an action. A pursuit refers to a goal you intend to achieve. A pursuit refers to something you are aiming at and working towards.
A pursuit in its literal meaning refers to a chase after something or someone. A futile pursuit is another way to say something is a wasted effort.
When the pursuit is futile, everything a person has done toward achieving the goal will be considered wasted since the goal cannot be achieved.
A bootless errand
When you say an action is bootless, it means the action will yield no profit or outcome.
By comparing an action or a pursuit to a bootless errand, you are saying all efforts put into the pursuit will end up wasted and will yield no profit.
A bootless errand is an aim at a goal that cannot be achieved.
A foolish quest
‘Foolish quest’ is a worthy synonym for ‘Needle in a haystack’ but the two phrases don’t mean the same thing entirely.
When you say something is a foolish quest, you can have several reasons for saying so. If you use this, you may have to still explain that you consider it foolish because it is impossible.
Going after something impossible is definitely a foolish move to make. You may not need to do much explanation, however.
A ‘quest’ is a mission you are hoping to complete. When you say a mission is foolish, it is either impossible to complete or it makes no sense.
Running on a treadmill
This sounds very nice to say and it sends almost the same message as ‘Needle in a haystack’. While this does not refer to something impossible, it refers to wasted efforts.
When you are running on a treadmill, it is impossible to go further. The person will remain in a spot and all efforts made to go ahead will be futile. Looking for a needle in a haystack is definitely a waste of time and effort.
Black cat in a coal cellar
This may be the perfect idiom to replace ‘Needle in a haystack’. It doesn’t refer to something impossible.
Rather, it refers to something that is very hard to achieve. Cats are very stubborn so you can’t simply call a cat out.
Since the color of the cat may match the cellar, you may find it hard to spot the cat by just looking around.
The same applies to looking for a needle in a haystack. If the needle is in the haystack, it is probably not impossible but definitely hard to achieve.
This is another way to say ‘Futile pursuit’ or ‘running on a treadmill’. You can imagine putting an APB on Big Bird and thinking you are one step closer to finding the imaginary character.
Since the pursuit is impossible, every effort made toward achieving the goal will not bring you closer to the impossible.