Also found in: Thesaurus.


1. Not producing the desired effect: an ineffectual treatment for indigestion. See Synonyms at futile.
2. Lacking forcefulness or effectiveness; inadequate or incompetent: an ineffectual ruler; ineffectual in dealing with a problem.

in′ef·fec′tu·al′i·ty (-ăl′ĭ-tē), in′ef·fec′tu·al·ness n.
in′ef·fec′tu·al·ly adv.
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.



(See also FUTILITY.)

all talk and no cider All talk and no action; much ado about nothing; great cry and little wool. This colloquial Americanism dates from the turn of the 19th century. The popular story explaining its origin tells of a party supposedly organized for the purpose of sharing a barrel of superior cider. Apparently the subject of politics was introduced and its talk supplanted pleasure and drinking as the focal point of the party. Disappointed guests left the gathering with the complaint of “all talk and no cider.”

Fine stories are cold comfort, when it is as they say “All talk and no cider.” (Nelson Kingsley, Diary, 1849)

beat one’s gums See TALKATIVENESS.

cut no ice To have no effect or influence; to fail to impress; to carry no weight, to mean nothing; also to cut ice meaning ‘to impress, to make an effect,’ although the phrase is almost exclusively used in the negative. In common usage since the late 19th century, the expression apparently owes its coinage to the fact that only keen and strong instruments can make an impression on the hard and glossy surface of ice.

go in one ear and out the other To be heard but not heeded; to be ignored or forgotten; to make no impact or impression. The implication here is that whatever is being said does not stay inside the listener’s head because he is empty-headed; information just passes straight through to the other side. A variant of this expression dates from 1400.

great cry and little wool Much ado about nothing; a lot of fuss and bother with little or nothing to show for it; also more cry than wool. Stephen Gosson relates the proverbial origin of this expression in The School of Abuse (1579):

As one said at the shearing of hogs, great cry and little wool, much ado and small help.

A similar current phrase is all talk and no action.

guinea pig See VICTIMIZATION.

lame duck An elected public official who is completing his term in office but has not been reelected; a stockbroker or speculator who has lost a great deal of money, or who has committed himself (through stock options, buying on margin, etc.) to more than he can afford; an inefficient or injured person. In the United States, this expression is usually political in nature, while in England, it is financial. Lame duck refers to an injured bird which is unable to care for itself and waddles around aimlessly as it awaits its imminent death. The implication is that a lame duck politician has, in essence, been rendered impotent; he is without a constituency and without bargaining clout—thus totally ineffective.

A “lame duck” Administration was in power, and a “lame duck” Congress still in being. (Times, December 14, 1932)

In 1933, Congress approved the 20th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, popularly known as the Lame Duck Amendment because it provided that newly elected Senators and Representatives would assume office on January 3 instead of March 4, thus reducing the length of the Congressional lame duck period. The Amendment also set the date for the presidential inauguration on January 20 instead of March 4.

like water off a duck’s back See EFFORTLESSNESS.

man of straw See VICTIMIZATION.

mealy-mouthed Indecisive; compromising or vacillating; namby-pamby; afraid or disinclined to assert one-self; timidly soft-spoken or mincing; avoiding plain and direct language. This expression alludes to the concept of meal ‘ground grain’ as dry, soft, and crumbly, lacking form or substance. A common variation is mealy.

He was not mealy-mouth’d, but would … have talked his mind to knights, or anybody. (Tom Ticklefoot, Some Observations Upon the Late Trials of Sir George Wakeman, 1679)

milk-and-water Insipid or jejune; lackluster, wishy-washy. This expression, alluding to the bland, vapid mixture that results when milk is diluted with water, is used to describe a person or thing virtually devoid of any interest, character, or vitality.

Change the milk-and-water style of your last memorial; assume a bolder tone. (Journal of the American Congress, 1783)

milksop A man who lacks courage and spunk; a spiritless, babyish man or youth. This term alludes to the obsolete meaning of milksop referring to an infant fed on only milk. Chaucer used the label figuratively in the 14th century. Today it sees little use except in literary contexts.

I ought to be d—n’d for having spoiled one of the prettiest fellows in the world, by making a milk-sop of him. (Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, 1749)

namby-pamby Wishy-washy; insipid, lacking character or strength; weak or indecisive; childishly cute or affectedly sentimental. This expression was first used in a 1726 poem nicknaming and ridiculing Ambrose Philips (1674-1749), who purportedly had written a children’s verse employing affected, “cutesy” language.

Namby Pamby’s little rhymes, Little jingle, little chimes. (Henry Carey, Namby Pamby, 1726)

Namby is a baby-talk corruption of the name Ambrose, and pamby is simply a nonsensical rhyming word. The expression received almost immediate acceptance and popularity. Though now extended to contexts such as affected or effeminate behavior, namby-pamby (or the unhyphenated namby pamby) is still most commonly used to describe inferior writing.

At a very advanced age he condescended to trifle in namby pamby rhymes. (James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791)

paper tiger A person or thing that seems impressive or powerful but is, in actuality, weak or ineffectual; a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Figuratively, a tiger is a brave or forceful person, one with the qualities associated with the feline tiger. Since paper implies flimsiness, paper tiger refers to any person or thing whose impressiveness is actually a façade, whose bark is worse than his bite. This expression, part of an ancient Oriental proverb, first received public attention in 1946 when Mao Tse-tung, leader of Communist China, accused the United States of being a “paper tiger.” He repeated the charge during the Korean War, specifically in reference to President Truman. Although now applied in widely varying contexts, paper tiger remains an effective political invective:

I disagreed with nearly all of Mr. Hoffer’s conclusions but one. That is where he stated that the Negro is doing battle with a paper tiger when he aims his wrath at the white liberal. (New York Times Magazine, April 25, 1965)

wishy-washy Indecisive, insipid, vacillating, weak; namby-pamby; lacking quality, character, or strength. Originally, wishy-washy referred to a weak, watered-down drink or to soup that was so watery that it was devoid of substance. Eventually, the expression was applied in other contexts to describe persons or ideas of weak and unimpressive character.

A weak, wishy-washy man who had hardly any mind of his own to speak of. (Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset, 1867)

write on water To leave no lasting record, to make no permanent impression; also to write in the dust, on sand, or on the wind. The equivalent Latin phrase is in aqua scribere. This expression, a comment on the ephemerality of human life and works, is found in the epitaph of the English poet John Keats.

Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary, 1st Edition. © 1980 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
ThesaurusAntonymsRelated WordsSynonymsLegend:
Adv.1.ineffectually - in an ineffectual manner; "she tried ineffectually to light the primus, and Thomas came to help her"
effectually - in an effectual manner; "Bismarck was constantly criticised by the more liberal newspapers, and he retaliated by passing an emergency decree that effectually muzzled the press"
Based on WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2012 Princeton University, Farlex Inc.


[ˌɪnɪˈfektjʊəlɪ] ADVinútilmente
"I couldn't help it," she said ineffectually-no lo pude evitar -dijo inútilmente
Collins Spanish Dictionary - Complete and Unabridged 8th Edition 2005 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1971, 1988 © HarperCollins Publishers 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2005


advohne Wirkung; (= half-heartedly)halbherzig
Collins German Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged 7th Edition 2005. © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1980 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1997, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2007
References in classic literature ?
The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
She was sunk in a pit of blackness, with but that small square of pallid light framing the star that she had so whimsically and oh, so ineffectually named.
For, of course, each boat is supplied with several harpoons to bend on to the line should the first one be ineffectually darted without recovery.
John Willet was so amazed by the exasperation and boldness of his hopeful son, that he sat as one bewildered, staring in a ludicrous manner at the boiler, and endeavouring, but quite ineffectually, to collect his tardy thoughts, and invent an answer.
I was not yet so perfectly beside myself as to be heedless of these representations, and therefore toiled on, ineffectually endeavouring to appease the thirst which consumed me, by thinking that in a short time I should be able to gratify it to my heart's content.
They had tried ineffectually to converse on various subjects, and always the thing uppermost in the mind of each had caused the conversation to lapse.
A madness was upon me and I repeated the folly, the offense, but again ineffectually, and I had the decency to desist.
He knew that his giant muscles could not part the many strands that bound his wrists and ankles, for he had strained often, but ineffectually for release.
The runner had tried ineffectually to gain admission as a visitor at Zion Place.
Perchance, amid their proper element of smoke, which eddied forth from the ill-constructed chimney, the ghosts of departed cook-maids looked wonderingly on, or peeped down the great breadth of the flue, despising the simplicity of the projected meal, yet ineffectually pining to thrust their shadowy hands into each inchoate dish.
Sometimes, a strong man's hand, sometimes a strong man's breast, was set against my mouth to deaden my cries, and with a hot breath always close to me, I struggled ineffectually in the dark, while I was fastened tight to the wall.
Many a village Bose, fit only to course a mud-turtle in a victualling cellar, sported his heavy quarters in the woods, without the knowledge of his master, and ineffectually smelled at old fox burrows and woodchucks' holes; led perchance by some slight cur which nimbly threaded the wood, and might still inspire a natural terror in its denizens; -- now far behind his guide, barking like a canine bull toward some small squirrel which had treed itself for scrutiny, then, cantering off, bending the bushes with his weight, imagining that he is on the track of some stray member of the jerbilla family.