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In association with a couple of questions about unfamiliar expressions used in Jeffery Archers fiction, “The Fourth Estate,” I was amused by the phrase, “can’t wipe one’s ass if somebody didn’t hand paper,” appearing in the scene (Page 281) where one of the main characters, Dick Armstrong, British Army captain who rose from an illegal immigrant from the Czech in W.W. II and now controlling German newspapers published in British sector of Berlin bets with Max Sackville, American Army captain who controls German newspapers in American sector on Max’s capability of sacking Julius Hahn, the owner of Del Berliner, the largest German language newspaper in American sector.

“Julius Hahn claims he knows you.”

“Yeah, sure does,” said Max. “He’s responsible for bringing out the paper in this sector. Not that I ever read it.”

“He seems pretty successful,” said Armstrong, dealing another hand.

“Certainly is. But only thanks to me,” said Max.

“What do you mean’ because of you’?” Armstrong asked.

“He couldn’t even wipe his ass in the morning if I didn’t hand him the paper. I issue his monthly permit. I control his paper supply, I decide how much electricity he gets. I decide when it will be turned on and off.”

I understand the statement, “He couldn’t even wipe his ass in the morning if I didn’t hand him the paper,” is linked with Max’s control of paper supply to Julius Hahn, but I wonder whether “One can’t even wipe one’s ass” can be used as an idiom or stand-alone expression in English, or it’s merely a one-off play of word.

Incidentally, we have a Japanese word, ‘尻拭い- literally 'wipe one’s ass,’ which means to take one’s own or other’s responsibility in association of self-disposition of one’s discharge, e.g. We have to wipe our government’ ass - the national debts amounting to US$ 9 trillion being accumulated through their lax financial management over time.

Archer’s “Can wipe one’s ass” is ability to do a job, Japanese “Can wipe one’s ass” is ability to take responsibility. The same turn of word, but different meaning by language.

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Heh! It's amazing how often you ask questions based on simply badly written English, Yoichi. This is really telling - it tells about how badly written, most English is today. Also, today, most/all English writers, particularly journalists, have a compelling need to "be clever". Thus, they often try to modify figures of speech - particularly when they are utterly clueless and don't even know/understand the base figure of speech in question. There are many similar phrases like "couldn't find his own ass" "couldn't find his way out of a paper bag" and so on. –  Joe Blow Jul 24 at 11:44
    
The takeaway here is it is yet another 'Yoichi example' of a somewhat poorly-written, modification of a somewhat common saying in English. That's the bottom line. –  Joe Blow Jul 24 at 11:45

2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

I've not heard that phrase, either, but I'm familiar with the construct:

He couldn't do X, even if I did Y [to help]

It's usually meant to be humorous hyperbole, and a jab at the target's intelligence or competence in some area. A couple examples I've heard or stumbled across here and there:

He couldn't spell CAT even if you spotted him the ‘C’ and the ‘A’. «ref.»

He couldn't ad-lib a fart after a baked-bean dinner. «ref.»

She couldn't count to 20 even with her shoes off.

I managed to find a few more on this webpage; some of them I'd heard before, and some of them were new:

He couldn't find his way through a maze even if the rats helped him.

He couldn't pour water [or piss] out of a boot with instructions on the heel.

He couldn't balance a checkbook if Einstein helped.

In short, I'd say that the phrase you found isn't idiomatic, although the construct might be considered to be.

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Or, "He can't walk and chew gum at the same time." –  rhetorician Jun 6 '13 at 11:10
    
@rhet: That one doesn't quite follow the same format, in that there's nothing helping – no Einstein, no baked beans, no helpful rats or toes. You could expand that to get the same effect, I suppose: "He couldn't walk and chew gum, even if I gave him a cane and bought the gum." (Come to think of it, though, I think I misread the original question; I thought it said, "He couldn’t even wipe his ass in the morning, even if I handed him the paper." The original wording is close, but not that. Dang! I couldn't get this right even with Bill Franke as my editor and John Lawler as my consultant.) –  J.R. Jun 6 '13 at 16:37
    
I like your "if I gave him a cane and bought the gum." How about, "He couldn't find his ass if I gave him a diagram and a flashlight"? –  rhetorician Jun 6 '13 at 19:26
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@rhet: I think I've heard one that goes something like this: "He couldn't find his way home in the back of a taxicab." –  J.R. Jun 7 '13 at 9:37
    
JR< what you say is half the story. It's true that "couldn't _ _ if _ _ _" is a common form. But things involving ass, wiping your ass, finding your ass, your ass being attached, etc, is another common form. Here the writer, who is an utter idiot, was accidentally messily combining two forms. –  Joe Blow Jul 24 at 11:46

In the context from which the phrase comes, it has a very specific meaning. Max is being literal about Hahn's dependence on Max's control of his supplies, although he is extending that control to a hyperbolic extreme to make a point.

This is not a phrase in general use at this point in time, nor does it have any other meaning.

Your question, however, implies that you are wondering if it could be used in any other way, and I find it easy to imagine the phrase being taken out of context and turned into a general insult, possibly to mean that the person in question is stupid or incompetent and requires someone else's help to do something basic. Maybe someday we'll see it used this way, but not yet.

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This is completely wrong: "not a phrase in general use at this point in time" It is a confusion of two extremely commonplace forms in sarcastic English. –  Joe Blow Jul 24 at 11:47

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