flea in one's ear

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flea in one's ear

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Aug 17, 2012 11:21 pm

<2006 “‘Wrenne raised his eyebrows. ‘After arresting you on the wharf? I would have sent him off with a flea in his ear.’”—Sovereign by C. J. Sansom, page 610> [[story placed in 1541]]

My first thought was that in the above quote flea in your ear might be an anachronism and my second thought was that it was a variation of bug in your ear meaning idea or hint; thus put a bug in someone’s ear. But the first turned out to not be the case and the second turned out to be questionable.

FLEA IN YOUR EAR: Said of a stinging or mortifying reproof, rebuff, rebuke, or repulse, which sends one away discomfited; a sharp or humiliating reprimand; hint, warning, disquieting disclosure chiefly in phrase to go (send, etc.) away with a flea in one's ear. <The old lady thought he was impertinent and sent him away with a flea in his ear.>

Etymology: In Middle English and later, flea in one’s ear had the meaning ‘something that causes alarm or anxiety.’ (cf. French avor la puce à l’oreille) The expression refers to the restless and distressed behavior of a dog afflicted with a flea in its ear. The phrase first appeared circa 1430, however, since its meaning changed over time (see above definition), and it is not always clear which meaning is meant nor when the later meaning took root, it is difficult to say if its use in the quote above is an anachronism or not.

(Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, Allen’s Dictionary of English Phrases, Dictionary of American Regional English, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, and Picturesque Expressions by Urdang)

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1586 “[He] at length had such his answer, that he is gone to Rome with a flea in his eare, that disquieteth him.”—True Faithful Relation . . . and Spirits (1659) by J. Dee, Letter 14 May, i. page 423>

<1712 “We being stronger than they, sent them away with a Flea in their Ear.”—The History of John Bull by J. Arbuthnot, iii. vi. page 25>

<1838 “[He] came off unvictorious with a flea in his ear.”—Correspondence (1888) by C. K. Sharpe, II, page 510>

<1887 “I sent him off with a flea in his ear, I can tell you.”—Jess by H. R. Haggard, xiii>

<1947 “Everyone seemed to have a flea in his ear. Tempers flared. Hot words flew.”— Winnipeg Free Press (Manitoba, Canada), 11 March, page 11)

<1995 “. . . he emerged with two A-levels, and a flea in his ear from his housemaster for wanting to follow in his father's commercial footsteps.”—The Independent (London), 26 March>

<2003 “We won't shoot the messenger but we can certainly send him back with a flea in his ear.”—The Birmingham Post (England), 26 June>

<2011 “This is why Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was sent home from a European summit at the weekend with a flea in his ear and told to address the country's debt problems immediately.”—Otago Daily Times (Dunedin, New Zealand), 26 October>

Ken G – August 17, 2012
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