Thorn in the Flesh—More Than a Painful Idiom

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

A thorn in the flesh is something that causes persistent annoyance or trouble. It’s like saying there’s something constantly bothering or troubling you.

If you’re not familiar with idioms, they’re phrases or expressions that don’t mean what the words literally say. Knowing English language idioms like thorn in the flesh lets us express feelings and situations in more interesting ways, rather than just stating the obvious.

But these expressions only make sense when they’re used correctly. So, I’ll cover the idiom’s meaning, variations, and details of its origin and even share a few examples of how it can be used. Ready to become an expert on this idiom? Let’s go!

What Does the Idiom Thorn in the Flesh Mean?

The idiom thorn in the flesh means a constant source of annoyance or trouble or a problem that might not be major but is still persistent and irritating. It’s really a powerful and creative way to describe nuisances that, while not catastrophic, significantly impact someone’s peace of mind or daily life.

According to Merriam-Webster, a thorn in the flesh means “a person or thing that repeatedly annoys someone or something or causes problems.” I don’t know about you, but a few people definitely come to my mind when I read that.

It’s a phrase that symbolizes a persistent issue or bother—like a small but sharp thorn causing discomfort. It’s a metaphor for any annoyance or obstacle that continually causes difficulty, no matter how seemingly minor.

I’m not ashamed to admit that my kids sometimes feel like thorns in my flesh. For as cute and smart and kind as they are, I’m still heavily annoyed by repeat sounds and sensations. There are days I crawl into bed and dream about the word mom being screamed over and over.

Literal Meaning vs. Figurative Meaning

The literal meaning of a thorn in the flesh would obviously refer to an actual thorn causing physical pain because it’s stuck in your skin. Figuratively, it extends to any ongoing problem, irritation, or challenge in someone’s life.

Variations of the Idiom

If you’ve heard slightly different versions of this phrase, just know that they’re likely not wrong. We get altered forms of some phrases as society evolves and cultural nuances come into play. Here are a few variations of a thorn in the flesh that still work in its place:

  • Thorn in one’s side
  • Thorn in my skin
  • A prick in my flesh
  • Thorn in your side
  • Thorn in my side

How Is the Idiom Thorn in the Flesh Commonly Used in Context?

This idiom is super versatile, appearing in personal anecdotes about life’s minor but persistent challenges, literature to describe characters’ struggles, and even in professional contexts to talk about ongoing project issues or difficult colleagues.

Below are a few made-up scenarios that use the phrase, tips for effective usage, and examples of its use:

What Are the Different Ways to Use the Idiom Thorn in the Flesh?

  • Describing a problematic person: “Derek’s been a thorn in my side since this darn project started, and now I don’t even want to finish it.”
  • Relating to personal challenges: “This injured knee has been a thorn in my flesh for months and is keeping me from exercising.”
  • In literature: To illustrate a character’s enduring obstacle or antagonist. “The secret they swore me to keep has been festering like a thorn in my flesh all day.”

What Are Some Tips for Using the Idiom Thorn in the Flesh Effectively?

  • It works best when used for problems that are more annoying than disabling.
  • Combine it with personal stories for greater impact.
  • It’s a strong visual metaphor; use it to evoke empathy or understanding in your listener.
  • Never use it to refer to a loved one who needs help.

Where Can You Find Examples of the Idiom Thorn in the Flesh?

Look for this idiom in classic and contemporary literature, movies where characters face ongoing challenges, and speeches or writings by individuals discussing personal battles with enduring issues.

It’s a quote taken straight from the Bible, so you can find it used there. But it’s also the title of several works of fiction, like the thriller novel by Anne Brooke. What a great name for a scary story, right?

It’s such a common expression that the news outlets have also quoted it for decades. Check out these two examples I pulled:

“Not having a degree has always been a thorn in her side,” Kapiloff continued. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

However, some unscrupulous people within the local authority have been a thorn in her flesh as they want to help themselves with the same piece of land. (The Zambia Daily Mail)

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Thorn in the Flesh?

thorn in the flesh Ngram
Thorn in the flesh usage trend.

The expression thorn in the flesh originated from the Bible, specifically the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where Paul mentions a thorn in the flesh that was given to him to prevent him from becoming too prideful. 

You can find it in the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 12:7, which states: “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”

But a variation of the idiom also appears in the Bible, a thorn in your side. It’s in the Old Testament, Numbers 33:55: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides.”

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

From its biblical origins, the term has broadened in scope to describe any persistent annoyance or problem, moving beyond its initial religious context to become a common part of secular language.

What Are Some Related Terms to Thorn in the Flesh?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about idioms, it’s that they tend to come across a tad dramatic. Saying a thorn in the flesh does sound a bit over the top, so try one of these perfectly good synonyms instead.



  • Relief
  • Pleasure
  • Benefit
  • Godsend
  • Helpful

Thorn in the Flesh: Test Your Knowledge!

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What Have We Learned about the Idiom Thorn in the Flesh?

Now that we’ve broken down the details surrounding the idiom thorn in the flesh, we’ve revealed how it’s a versatile tool for expressing the frustrations of life’s smaller, ongoing troubles. The idiom simply refers to a continual source of irritation or hardship. 

From its profound biblical roots to everyday annoyances, this phrase helps articulate the human experience with relatable imagery, as all good idioms do! I covered everything from its deeper meaning to different variations and its origin and even showed you some real-life examples of how it can be used.

Aren’t idioms so much fun? If you feel like learning about even more of them, I have hundreds of guides right here on our site, so go check them out!