I was amused by the expression "Paid a penny and only farted" (related by @FumbleFingers), which suggested a similar Japanese saying: 大山鳴動鼠一匹 - "Find only a small mouse coming out after hearing rumblings and experiencing shaking of the big mountain."

It’s humorous. I chuckled when I read it, and I wrote to the author that I love it.

With that said, the word "fart" reminds me of another Japanese proverb, 百日の説法屁一つ- "A fart ruins 100 days of sermons by the priest", which means that a small mistake (the sound of a fart in front of the congregation) brings all his efforts to naught.

It can’t happen in big Western churches. But it could well happen in a small wooden temple where a priest would preach to 30 – 50 provincial followers. Can you imagine how the proud priest being called 'the venerable' would be embarrased when his loud fart is heard by all his followers during his serious sermon and they start to giggle here and there in the hall?

We also have a similar saying" 九仞の功を一簣に欠く, which literally means "Collapse a 9- meter sand tower with the last pile of sand."

What is the English equivalent of the saying "A fart ruins 100 days of sermons by the priest (bishop): a small mistake depreciates the value of (vitiates) all labor and effort to naught," preferably in such a humorous way?

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    九仞の功を一簣に欠く, “Collapse a 9- meter sand tower with the last pile of sand”: This is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 25, 2013 at 9:54
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    @AndrewLeach Not sure why you didn't put that in an answer, as it's better than any of the others. Jan 25, 2013 at 12:16
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    @Brandon Moore: While Andrew's comment is right on for the sand castle saying, it doesn't really answer the OP's question about the fart question.
    – user21497
    Jan 25, 2013 at 13:23
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    Reminds me of a joke. A farmer walks into a pub, and orders a whiskey. "See that fence over there?" he asks bartender. "I built it! Dug up the holes with my shovel, chopped down the trees for the posts myself, laid every last rail! But do they call me 'McGregor the Fence-Builder?' No..." He gulps down the whiskey and orders another. "See that pier on the loch?" He continues, "I built that myself, too. Swam out into the loch to lay the foundations, laid down every single board! But do they call me 'McGregor the Pier-Builder?' No." "But ye f**k ONE sheep ..."
    – Rob
    Jan 25, 2013 at 16:49
  • 6

12 Answers 12


Although neither of these are common English idioms, I'm reminded of Benjamin Franklin's proverb:

It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.

or Warren Buffet's paraphrase:

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.

Both of these capture the laborious nature of the “100 sermons” in the Japanese original.

  • 1
    Yep, these are the only which really match the question.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 25, 2013 at 11:36
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    Confucious say, "It take many nail to build crib, but one screw to fill it."
    – deizel.
    Jan 25, 2013 at 17:09
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    Or, as Harry Truman said, "One 'ah, shit!' cancels one thousand 'attaboys'". Jan 25, 2013 at 17:31
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    But both lack the dry humor of the Japanese expression :-(
    – Jay Elston
    Jan 26, 2013 at 4:27
  • @Jay: True – both of these are rather vanilla, especially alongside a farting preacher. I don't know if English has such a wry way of expressing the sentiment, at least not as an oft-quoted proverb.
    – J.R.
    Jan 26, 2013 at 10:07

Maybe "One rotten apple spoils the barrel" is similar.

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    I don't think these are quite the same. "One bad apple" often refers to how someone with bad character will ruin their friends, or how someone who is a constant grouch can sink morale for the group. The farting preacher, on the other hand, undermines his own labors or credibility by his inopportune emission. Similar? No disagreement from me. But not a dead-on match.
    – J.R.
    Jan 25, 2013 at 10:22
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    Agreed, just "Maybe...similar", as my sentence says. The one point of similarity is that all it takes to ruin everything is a small quantity.
    – user21497
    Jan 25, 2013 at 13:24
  • What am I missing? I believe that this is a perfect match for the question –– 99 apples’ quality thrown into doubt because of one bad one. Jan 25, 2013 at 19:50
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    Bill Franke.I’m inclined to J.R’s interpretation. While one rotten apple affects all other apples, a fart of the priest affects only priest himself, or vitiates his authority, and not his followers. Jan 26, 2013 at 2:37
  • @Yoichi: I agree. That point isn't similar between these two. The way you put it makes that very clear. More proof that how you say what you say is crucial.
    – user21497
    Jan 26, 2013 at 3:09

For want of a nail is a proverbial rhyme about how a seemingly trivial oversight can have far-reaching consequences.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


One idiomatic expression is fly in the ointment.

For five centuries, 'a fly in the ointment' has meant a small defect that spoils something valuable or is a source of annoyance. The modern version [...] suggests that something unpleasant may come or has come to light in a proposition or condition that is almost too pleasing; that there is something wrong hidden, unexpected somewhere.

So as you see, the original meaning is pretty much the one you're looking for, but the current meaning is rather different, putting additional stress on the defect not having been apparent right from the start.

As the Wikipedia article mentions, the source is likely Ecclesiastes 10:1. In the King James version, the passage reads, "Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour."

In Russian, there's the expression "a spoon of tar ruins a barrel of honey", but I don't think I ever saw anything similar in English; I'd certainly remember it.

  • I like that Russian saw, though. Thank you for relaying it in English.
    – user21497
    Jan 25, 2013 at 10:05

Ecclesiastes 10:1 (NASB)

Dead flies make a perfumer's oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor.


Since there is such user demand, I'll explain what I assumed would be obvious.

"A fart ruins 100 days of sermons" should be directly analogous to "a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom", the fact that a fart may smell like a dead fly is certainly an added bonus.

Is this in common everyday usage: Not in this form, although I didn't see the OP ask for a common saying, and I figured being from what is likely the most widely distributed work of all time might make it familiar to at least a few well read English speakers.

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    This is a bit too long to be a saying like the Japanese one...can you explain what you mean exactly? You only quote, but you don't explain anything in your own words. I don't hear people use any part of this quotation: I always hear people say "[there is] a fly in the ointment". Your quotation may be the origin of that, but, as it stands, why did you not post this as a comment? Jan 30, 2013 at 14:15
  • Please note that this is not something that would normally be said by an English speaker. It was simply the first thing that came to mind after reading the post, as the closest to the proverb listed.
    – user14070
    Jan 30, 2013 at 18:10
  • @Cerberus: I don't know about that. Japanese can be a very economical language. 言い出しっぺ (ii dashi 'pe) is their equivalent of "He who smelt it dealt it."
    – Robusto
    Jan 31, 2013 at 2:07

I noticed in your question that you are looking for an answer that is not only current in English, but also humorous. So I'll elevate my comment to an answer:

"One 'ah, shit!' cancels one thousand 'attaboys'".

If you are unfamiliar with the terms, the exclamation "ah, shit!" (or "oh, shit!") is used to express surprise at a significant mistake or undesirable event. "attaboy" is an expression of admiration, congratulation, or encouragement.

A person can go on throughout his job doing what he is supposed to do each day, even being praised for it, but he is still only doing what is expected of him. But that "ah, shit!" moment, should it ever happen, is always the one that is remembered more than all the everyday happenings. And, unfortunately, anyone associated with the event that caused it will be forever remembered most for that event.

  • In your comment, you attributed this to Truman. I can only wonder which "Ah, shit" he had in mind ...
    – hunter2
    Jul 16, 2013 at 10:17

The most humorous version that I think strikes to the core is called BridgeBuilder

You can build a thousand bridges, but if you suck one cock, they don't call you a bridge builder but a cocksucker.

Basically, it says that the greatest things you accomplish are overshadowed by the "lowest".

May not be the most "Politically Correct" saying these days, but you could vary it if the terminology strikes a nerve.

Edit: It's a quote from Play it to the Bone


Like the other two answers, "the pea under the mattress" refers to a small defect that ruins something, rather than necessarily a defect that someone is responsible for ruining their own efforts. It is a reference to the Hans Christian Anderson story "The Princess and the Pea" (originally, "Prinsessen paa Ærten").

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    The story about the princess and the pea is not a story about making how making a small mistake is remembered and overshadows all the good deeds one does.
    – Jay Elston
    Jan 26, 2013 at 4:32
  • @JayElston as I said, the analogy is only about a small defect ruining something, as were the other two answers given at the time. It's also why I said J.R.'s answer was the first to match perfectly.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 26, 2013 at 12:17

Between the cup and the lip a morsel may slip.

It is equivalent to the Chinese proverb 功亏一篑,which is in turn equivalent to the Japanese proverb 九仞の功を一簣に欠く as mentioned by OP.

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    I know that one as "There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip".
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 26, 2013 at 12:18
  • @Terry Li. I believe Japanese proverb, 九仞の功を一簣に欠くcame from Chinese original, ‘gong kui yi kui-功亏一篑’which is first found in the 尚書. I wonder if the word, 九仞 wasn’t existent in the original text, and added later by Japanese men of letters. Personally I think addition of 九仞- 9 meters, yards whichever gives a more concrete impression than simply saying ‘vitiate all the success with the last pile. Jan 28, 2013 at 2:26
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    @YoichiOishi 九仞 does exist in the original text. 书经《尚书·旅獒》:“为山九仞,功亏一篑。”
    – Terry Li
    Jan 28, 2013 at 2:31
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    Thanks. Great to know we share common axiom and culture. It's pity I can't get the character 獒 in the Japanese Word. Jan 28, 2013 at 3:10
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    I did, and put the site into 'My favorite' site. Jan 28, 2013 at 8:51

Though not a proverb, the phrase "rained on his parade" is used to describe situations where lots of work and preparation is rendered fruitless by a coincidental event that would normally be considered trivial.

It's not quite the same, as this phrase suggests a descrete climactic glorifying event that is spoiled, rather than the termination of a cultivated favourable would-be ongoing state that your interesting phrase suggests. Also, yours has the priest making the mistake, whereas this suggests a coincidence but can be used in cases where a someone deliberately spoils someone else's arrangements.

People don't themselves rain, so to capture the self-inflicted nature of your phrase, it might also be translated as "pissed on his chips" — if you will excuse the colloquialism — used where someone unintentionally spoils their own situation. In British English, "pissed" meaning urinated (in this context), and "chips" means potato fries.

  • +1 as welcome and thanks for the explanation of "pissed on his chips", I would have assumed that was was something being done by a third party.
    – user14070
    Jan 25, 2013 at 15:21
  • I think the scenario is a drunk person buying chips then being a little uncoordinated when urinating while holding them.There's also a Jerry Sadowitz joke: "I built that bridge, but do they call me John the bridge-builder? No they do not. [etc] You fuck ONE sheep...".
    – Jim Holmes
    Jan 25, 2013 at 18:29
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    I've always understood "rained on his parade" to mean being upstaged, either deliberately or accidentally, by some other. Eg, a bridesmaid getting more attention than the bride would be "raining on her [the bride's] parade".
    – Mynamite
    Jan 26, 2013 at 1:07
  • You might be right @Mynamite. Maybe it's not just coincidental events. In that case, you've rained on mine. I don't think you're being vindictive though. I'm having trouble finding out whether this song is the origin of the phrase. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don't_Rain_on_My_Parade
    – Jim Holmes
    Jan 29, 2013 at 15:54
  • @JimHolmes I certainly didn't mean to rain on your parade! I don't know if the song is the origin of the phrase but I think it's probably where I got my meaning of it.
    – Mynamite
    Jan 29, 2013 at 22:26

"You're only as good as your last [insert action here]."


One that hasn't come up yet: "blot your copybook" — in the sense that one drop or patch of ink on a neat page will ruin the entire thing. In your example the farting vicar would be said to have blotted his copybook.

There's also "fly in the ointment" or any number of variations on the theme you could find in the Viz Profanisaurus.

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