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Lately I've been thinking of a saying that describes the following:

Ruining something for someone else, for the sole purpose of it not being useful any more to the other party, even though you do not need it yourself in any way.

I thought that "spoils of war" / "warspoils" was a saying / "proverb" that was used for the above description, but apparently it's not really what I thought it was.

So my question is twofold:

  1. What exactly does "spoils of war" mean?
  2. Is there a certain saying/proverb that "matches" my description?
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7 Answers 7

A dictionary helps with question 1, e.g. ODO:

spoil

noun

  1. (usually spoils) goods stolen or taken forcibly from a person or place:
         the looters carried their spoils away

The spoils of war is the booty captured and carried off by the victor.

Ruining something in the way you describe, to hurt someone else, is an act of spite.

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I like "spite" too. "Destructive protectionism" was suggested to me but I don't think that works for the OP's purposes. –  Kristina Lopez Feb 2 '13 at 23:22

Dog in the Manger fits your question 2 perfectly.

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Spoil the verb originally referred to taking something by force or theft, though this use would now be archaic. The later senses related to the damage such a theft would do. We have noun senses relating both to the materials stolen, and to something being damaged.

There are a few sayings relating to damage done to something just to render it useless to others, often (for obvious reasons) to military or legal operations.

"Salt the earth" literally means to put salt on someone's land. It was done both to defeated enemies, and to criminals. This was probably a symbolic or religious act (salt has long been held to have apotropaic qualities that would ward off present spirits, so it would erase the spiritual connection people had to that land). It was later understood as having been an attempt to poison the land so crops wouldn't grow. While this wouldn't work (you'd need far too much salt), it means that "salting the earth" has long been a metaphor for deliberate damage to render something unusable by an enemy.

If you wanted to salt the earth of a city, you might say "Carthago delenda est" or "Delenda est Carthago", literally "Carthage must be destroyed" which Cato the Elder would often end speeches with (even on other topics) during the Punic Wars. While this is Latin, not English, it has frequently been used in English either in the form given above, or with Carthago replaced with the name of your target (either in English or in Latin), to suggest that you intend not just to defeat someone, but to utterly destroy them and all that they have.

A "scorched earth policy" is a policy of deliberate damage, much as "salting the earth" was falsely believe to be. It has a literal history from ancient times through to conflicts being fought now. Likewise, its metaphorical use is understood.

Scuttling is deliberately sink a ship, most often to render it useless to someone who is about to capture it. On rarer occasions it can be to make a harbour or waterway inaccessible (there were five Viking ships in Roskilde Fjord that were clearly scuttled on top of each other to block access), and sometimes both (a thousand years but just thirty kilometers away, the Danish navy scuttled much of their fleet that couldn't escape capture both to keep the ships and the port from being used by the Kriegsmarine). Here again, you can use this word metaphorically, though it isn't as common.

One that's similar to these in their literal senses, but not an appropriate metaphor is "burn your bridges". While this has been done by retreating forces to prevent their use by the enemy, it has a well establish metaphorical sense that concentrates on the fact that doing so means you can't go back, so using it for the sense you want wouldn't work.

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How about raze to the ground?

Conquering armies would often raze a city to the ground, ie completely demolish it so that it was no longer habitable.

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A (very) late answer, but the first thing I thought of when reading the description was

Being a spoil-sport.

Meaning that you ruin someone's pleasure in something, usually without any direct benifits to one-self except the "pleasure" of hurting the other person. (Although it does not have to be done on purpose or with the goal of hurting someone.)

This expression might explain the confusion with spoils of war as well.

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'scorched earth policy'--a military strategy which employs destruction of anything that might be of value to the enemy. In a financial setting a 'scorched earth policy' seeks to prevent a takeover of the target company by selling off assets, accumulating massive debt, or other activities that make the target company less attractive to a buyer. In extreme cases the 'scorched earth policy' becomes so damaging to the target company,'the policy' becomes a 'suicide pill'. (investopedia)

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The "spoils of war" are those things captured by successful combat. These could include cities, farms, livestock etc.

On the other hand, if your burn your farms, kill your livestock, blow up your factories in order to prevent them from being useful to the enemy in the event of capture, that is a "scorched earth policy.

The whole purpose of a "scorched earth" policy is to prevent items from being captured intact and becoming the enemies' "spoils of war."

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