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fu•til•i•ty(fyuˈtɪl ɪ ti)
n., pl. -ties.
- Being a producer around here is like trying to direct a Broadway show full of deaf-mutes —William Diehl
- Charging like Don Quixote at the windmills —George Bernard Shaw
- Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing —Phyllis Diller
The twists on everyday life similes to describe ineffective actions are virtually without limit. A few more examples: effective “As using a sword against cobwebs,” “As trying to plug a hole with Scotch tape,” “As waxing a broken car.”
- Confronting Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle with real arms control is like confronting Dracula with a silver cross: You expect him to make loud noises and thresh about —Wall Street Journal editorial, March 25, 1986
- Convincing her [to get an abortion] is like trying to convince her the moon’s a yo-yo —Ann Beattie
- Effective as redecorating a house over a corroding plumbing system —Anon
- Explained to, cajoled, and bullied … but he might as well have been boxing with a feather bolster —Lael Tucker Wertenbaker
- Futile as an attempt to tattoo soap bubbles —Anon
- Futile as regret —Edward Arlington Robinson
- Futile as to attempt to dust cobwebs off the moon —Anon
- Futile as to fight an earthquake with argument —Anon
- Futile … like a lacy valentine with a red heart which contains no message of love —Louis Auchincloss
- Futile … like emptying a cupful of ants into a butterfly nest for safekeeping —Beryl Bainbridge
- Futile [to fight unfounded suspicions] … like fighting with air, a mock battle with blank cartridges —August Strindberg
- Futile like Samson pulling the roof down on the Philistines —George Garrett
- Futile, like shoveling sand into the sea —Isabel Allende
- Futile … like talking to a lake, a chilled lake, no reaction, not a ripple —James Kirkwood
- Lending to the feckless is like pelting a stray dog with dumplings —Chinese saying
- Like a spent prisoner before the moment of execution, he knew that it was too late for protest —Dorothea Straus
- Maintaining classical studies in 1987 is like Cosmopolitan magazine obstinately advertising bustles —Dennis O’Brien, New York Times OpEd, February 12, 1987
O’Brien, a university president used the comparison to support his argument that college should not be viewed as a product.
- Might as well try to teach good manners to a wolf or a wild boar (as to bloody-minded soldiers who have lost whatever religion they may have had) —George Garrett
- My efforts [to stir my husband out of a sense of doom] have been like so many waves, dashing against the Rock of Ages —Robert E. Sherwood
Sherwood wrote this simile for the character of Mary Todd Lincoln in his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois.
- (About as) pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus —John Osborne
- Pointless as throwing birdseed on the ground while snow still falls fast —Ann Beattie
- The prophesying business is like writing fugues; it is fatal to everyone save the man of absolute genius —H. L. Mencken
- Showing emotion [when with an uncommunicative father] was like having a snowball fight with a brick wall —Ann Jasperson
- Speculating about it was like robbing last year’s bee tree —Borden Deal
- To argue with William is like arguing with Vesuvius —Delmore Schwartz
See Also: ARGUMENT
(See also EXTRANEOUSNESS.)
bark at the moon To labor or protest in vain; to choose an ineffectual means to achieve a desired end, or to attempt the impossible, thereby making any effort futile by definition; also often bay at the moon. The phrase refers to the common practice of dogs to bay at the moon, as if to frighten or provoke it. Connotations of the foolishness of barking at the moon, based on the disparity between the earthly dog and the mystical moon, are carried over into the figurative usage, as if to imply that barking at the moon is like banging one’s head against the wall.
beat one’s head against the wall To attempt an impossible task to one’s own detriment; to vainly oppose an unyielding force; also to hit, knock, or bang one’s head against the wall, often a stone wall. The allusion is to the futility and frustration, not to mention injury, caused by such an action.
beat the air To strike out at nothing, to labor or talk idly or to no purpose; to shadowbox. The phrase may well derive directly from the last definition, as suggested by its use in the King James Version of the New Testament:
I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air. (I Corinthians 9:26)
the blind leading the blind Ignorance on the part of both leaders and followers; lack of guidance and direction resulting in certain failure; futility. The phrase is of Biblical origin. Speaking of the Pharisees, Jesus says:
They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. (Matthew 15:14)
The expression is also the title of a famous painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder (1568).
cast stones against the wind To labor in vain; to work without accomplishing anything.
I see I swim against the stream, I kick against a goad, I cast a stone against the wind. (Grange, Golden Aphrodite, 1577)
cry for the moon To desire the unattainable or the impossible, to want what is wholly beyond one’s reach; also to ask or wish for the moon. Although some sources conjecture that this expression comes from children crying for the moon to play with, that theory seems a bit forced. The moon has long typified a place impossible to reach or object impossible to obtain, and was so used by Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part II (1593):
And dogged York, that reaches at the moon,
Whose overweening arm I have plucked back. (III, i)
A similar French expression is vouloir prendre la lune avec les dents ‘to want to take the moon between one’s teeth.’
Dame Partington and her mop See CONSERVATISM.
flog a dead horse To attempt to rekindle interest in a worn-out topic, flagging discussion, doomed or defeated legislation, or other matter; to engage in futile activity. The figurative use of this expression is closely related to the literal, i.e., it is useless to attempt to revive or stimulate something that is dead.
In parliament he again pressed the necessity of reducing expenditure. Friends warned him that he was flogging a dead horse. (John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden, 1881)
A variation is beat or whip a dead horse.
from pillar to post See DIRECTION
kick against the pricks See REBELLION.
make bricks without straw To try to accomplish a task without the proper materials or essential ingredients. The current sense of this expression is due to a misinterpretation of the Biblical story (Exodus 5:6-19) from which it comes. The Israelites were not ordered to make bricks without straw at all, as is popularly believed. Rather, they were told that straw for the sun-dried mud-and-straw bricks they were required to make would no longer be provided for them, and that they would have to go out and gather it themselves. Making bricks without straw would be an impossible task since straw was the essential element in holding the sun-dried mud bricks together. Use of the expression dates from the mid-17th century.
It is often good for us to have to make bricks without straw. (Sir Leslie Stephen, Hours in a Library, 1874)
milk the ram To engage in an activity destined to fail, to try in vain to do something which cannot be done; also to milk the bull. A ram is a male sheep and a bull is a male bovine. The old proverb “Whilst the one milks the ram, the other holds under the sieve” probably spawned this phrase; it appeared in Several Tracts by John Hales in 1656.
a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse An obsolete proverb of obvious explicit literal meaning. Figuratively, this phrase implies that regardless of how obvious a hint or suggestion may seem, it is useless if the person to whom it is directed is not aware of it. Thus, subtlety and tact can, at times, be inappropriate, particularly when dealing with a person known for his obtuseness. It is likely that this adage had been current for several centuries before its earliest literary usage in 1794 by William Godwin in The Adventures of Caleb Williams.
pile Pelion upon Ossa See EXACERBATION.
plow the sands To engage in fruitless or futile labor, to waste one’s time trying to do an impossible or endless task.
All our time, all our labour, and all our assiduity is as certain to be thrown away as if you were to plough the sands of the seashore, the moment that the Bill reaches the Upper Chamber. (Herbert Henry Asquith, Speech at Birmingham, 1894)
In Richard II (II, ii) Shakespeare used a similar expression with the same meaning:
Alas, poor Duke! The task he undertakes
Is numbering sands and drinking oceans dry.
put a rope to the eye of a needle To attempt the impossible. To explain would be to belabor the obvious.
roast snow in a furnace To pursue ludicrous or meaningless activities; to engage in futile, pointless tasks. The figurative implications of this expression are obvious.
seek a knot in a bulrush See NIT-PICKING.
shoe the goose To engage in aimless, trivial, unnecessary, or futile activities; to do busy work; to waste time. As this expression implies, putting shoes on a goose is as ludicrous and pointless as it is futile.
Yet I can do something else than shoe the goose for my living. (Nicholas Breton, Grinello’s Fort, 1604)
sleeveless errand Any aimless or futile activity; an endeavor that is sure to be unprofitable or unsuccessful. In this expression, sleeveless is probably derived from sleave ‘knotted threads’ such as on the ends of woven fabrics, implying that the task or errand has loose ends which are not tied together in any significant or worthwhile manner. Most popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, sleeveless errand commonly referred to a false mission or other bogus activity which would keep a person occupied, and therefore out of the way, for a period of time. Variations such as sleeveless words, sleeveless reason, etc., have appeared in works by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and others.
He was employ’d by Pope Alexander the third upon a sleeveless errand to convert the Sultan of Iconium. (Myles Davies, Athenae Britannicae, 1716)
square the circle To engage in a futile endeavor; to undertake an impossible task. Early mathematicians struggled to find a circle and a square with equal areas. This is an impossibility since a principal factor in the area formula for a circle is π (3.1416 …), an irrational number, whereas the factors in the area formula for a square are always rational numbers. The expression can now be applied to the attempting of any impossibility.
You may as soon square the circle, as reduce the several Branches … under one single Head. (Thomas Brown, Fresny’s Amusements, 1704)
throw straws against the wind To vainly resist the inevitable, to sweep back the Atlantic with a broom. A similar expression appeared in John Taylor’s Shilling (1622):
Like throwing feathers ‘gainst the wind.
Both straw and feathers are very light and no match for the force of the wind.
wash a brick To work in vain, to engage in utterly useless or futile labor, to plow the sands.
I wish I could make him feel as he ought, but one may as well wash a brick. (Warner in John Heneage Jesse’s George Selwyn and his Comtemporaries, 1779)
Rarely heard today, this self-evident expression is the English equivalent of the old Latin proverb laterem lavare.
wild-goose chase An impractical and ill-advised search for something nonexistent or unobtainable; a foolish and useless quest; a futile or hopeless enterprise. Originally, a wild-goose chase was a horse race where the second and all succeeding horses had to follow the leader at definite intervals, thus resembling wild geese in flight. Since the second horse was not allowed to overtake the first, it would become exhausted in its futile chase. It has alternately been suggested that wild-goose chase may refer to the difficulty of capturing a wild goose, implying that even if caught, the prize is of little value.
“I see you have found nothing,” exclaimed Lady Gethin…. “It was a wild goose chase,” he replied with a weary look. (Mrs. Alexander, At Bay, 1885)
|Noun||1.||futility - uselessness as a consequence of having no practical result|