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In my language there's a saying which literally translates to

Don't burn your house to smoke out a rat!

It advises us to use solutions that are appropriate to the magnitude of the problem.

Eliye pedichu illam chudaruthu! - in Malayalam/Indian.

What could be the English equivalent?

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marked as duplicate by ermanen, Marthaª, Mari-Lou A, Nathaniel, BiscuitBoy Feb 3 at 16:10

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

36  
That's a good one. AFAIAC, following the tradition of the English language plagiarizing elements of other languages, hence on, Don't burn your house down to smoke out a rat shall be an English idiom. – Blessed Geek Feb 2 at 9:28
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Not an exact equivalent, but we had a saying in the Navy: "Measure with a micrometer, mark with chalk, cut with an ax." – WGroleau Feb 2 at 14:25
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To be honest, I think any English speaker would understand that idiom perfectly fine. – Daniel Feb 2 at 15:01
    
@Daniel That's what I thought. But I like to hear different approaches to the same matter. – NVZ Feb 2 at 15:05
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We get this question quite a lot: 1, 2, 3, 4 – ermanen Feb 2 at 15:58

14 Answers 14

up vote 65 down vote accepted

This idiom carries the same idea, but it is expressed as a description of what happens when the magnitude of the 'solution' far exceeds the needs of the problem:

Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

This idiom has the reverse idea:

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Instead of advocating restraint when a portion is bad and the rest is valuable, it advocates care when a portion is valuable and the rest is unwanted.

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There is the saying ' Dont shoot a wasp with a revolver" – Autistic Feb 2 at 10:31
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baby/bathwater is indeed the most common one, I'd say – Joe Blow Feb 2 at 12:17
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I’ve never heard the sledgehammer one, and don’t think it quite fits, but the baby and bathwater one is super-common, if somewhat different. – KRyan Feb 2 at 15:14
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those 2 idioms have very different implications. using a sledgehammer is disproportionate, but not necessarily detrimental, while the OP's idiom caries the notion that the cons outweights the pros in the final outcome. – njzk2 Feb 2 at 19:05
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@PLL There's Wikipedia article (which Lawrence linked to in his answer) which quotes a German reference from 1512 (including facsimile), while it claims the earliest known use of the concept in English dates back to 1849. – Thomas W. Feb 3 at 6:18

"Don't cut off your nose to spite your face."

It is not an exact match, but it is an interesting expression. Cutting off the nose to spite the face is used to:

describe a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction to a problem: "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face" is a warning against acting out of pique, or against pursuing revenge in a way that would damage oneself more than the object of one's anger.

...It was not uncommon in the Middle Ages for a person to cut the nose off of another for various reasons, including punishment from the state, or as an act of revenge. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes that the phrase may have originated from this practice, as at this time "cutting off someone's nose was the prototypical act of spite."

The expression has since become a blanket term for (often unwise) self-destructive actions motivated purely by anger or desire for revenge. For example, if a man was angered by his wife, he might burn down their house to punish her; however, burning down her house would also mean burning down his, along with all of their possessions.

[Wikipedia]

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good thinking - that's a common one too – Joe Blow Feb 2 at 12:18
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This feels like a better fit since it captures the self-destructive element of the original phrase. – Dancrumb Feb 2 at 15:30
    
this is a horrible thing to say. – njzk2 Feb 2 at 19:08
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"Don't cut off your nose to spite your face" was the first thing I thought of too; but it doesn't really match the OP's proverb, in that "Don't cut..." is warning specifically against the dangers of overreacting out of a negative emotional state (spite, anger, frustration), and not against plain old "over-engineering". – Quuxplusone Feb 3 at 6:31

In my neck of the woods, it is.

Don't kill flies with hand grenades

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I used to hear this one a lot more decades ago. I don't know if its on the decline, or I just hang out in different circles these days. – T.E.D. Feb 2 at 14:36
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I am very old and your old circle says hello. – King-Ink Feb 2 at 14:49
    
I would understand this one as similar to “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”: it emphasises overpoweredness, not counterproductiveness like the OP’s proverb. – PLL Feb 2 at 20:12
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@PLL - It's likely that the effects of the sledgehammer are mostly limited to the nut. But similar to "burning down the house to smoke out a rat", the hand grenade is likely to have serious collateral effects, especially if the flies (and the hand grenade) are inside a house/structure. – Kevin Fegan Feb 3 at 0:52
    
@KevinFegan Or if the hand grenade is not contained in a structure and you happen to be somewhere close to it. – reirab Feb 3 at 2:03

I believe the answers already posted hit the nail on the head but I feel this is appropriate for when someone has already used over the top methods or effort to solve an issue.

You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!

This comes from the film 'The Italian Job' and has been voted the favourite one liner from a film (in 2003), as such is probably quite well known. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Italian_Job

It refers to a scene where a car's doors were meant to be blown off with a small explosion but instead the entirety of the vehicle is blown to pieces.

This I would consider a light hearted response provided the person you are talking with knows of this film. (It would also help to sport a Michael Caine accent if possible but not necesssary.)

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I like Mr. Caine. I like this one. :) – NVZ Feb 2 at 11:15
    
great thinking! – Joe Blow Feb 2 at 12:18
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Interesting, but if we are referencing movie one-liners, I think the proper reference would be "You think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?" from 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I use that one myself all the time. FWIW, that vote you refer to only polled Brits. – T.E.D. Feb 2 at 14:39
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It's actually from the original The Italian Job (1969) and has been referenced in Britain ever since :D – Samthere Feb 3 at 9:32
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From what I can see about that movie, its very well-known in England due probably to the cast (and production company) being mostly English, but I'm not sure how well-known it is elsewhere. I've never seen it personally (seen BC&SK at least 4 times), but I had heard of it thanks to having a cube-mate from England. We had pretty much this exact conversation between the two of us a year ago. :-) – T.E.D. Feb 3 at 18:46

The cure is worse than the disease

This is heard more often and refers to a similar situation. With both the burn-the-house and sledgehammer-as-nut-cracker "solutions" is that in the process, you undermine the need for a solution at all.

The "definition" for the sledgehammer phrase is summarized as "overkill", but that doesn't aptly express the problem. A hammer is not merely overkill, but will likely destroy the edible portion of the nut. Burning the house is not merely overkill to the problem of ridding it of a mouse, but will destroy your shelter.

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this is probably the suggestion that is closest to the original meaning of the OP's idiom (with the nose one, which is disgusting on top of it). The solution is more detrimental than beneficial. – njzk2 Feb 2 at 19:08

I once heard this:

Don't use a cannon to kill a mosquito -- Confucius

Although this is a translation and not originally an English idiom, I believe it is relatively well known in the English language. So it might also be an option.

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The saying is fine, but the cannon was invented some 1,500 years after Confucius' time. – Jacinto Feb 2 at 9:56
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@Jacinto: "Don't believe all quotes you read on the internet." - Abraham Lincoln – SomethingDark Feb 2 at 10:03
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This is quite similar to the equivalent German idiom "to shoot with cannons at sparrows" ("mit Kanonen auf Spatzen schießen"). – Dubu Feb 2 at 13:45
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@Jacinto Not to mention the fact that mosquitos are a New World pest... – Mason Wheeler Feb 2 at 16:07
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@MasonWheeler Mosquitos are definitely present in Southeast Asia. Source: Plenty of personal experience. – reirab Feb 3 at 2:07

An exact match in English is available!

Burn not your house to fright the mouse away

Prov. Do not do something drastic when it is not necessary

[The Free Dictionary]

If this sounds archaic, it can simply be re-phrased as

Don't burn your house to scare away a mouse

Usage

NewbieUser009: Man, I am sick of all the downvotes for my EL&U questions. I should probably delete my account.

EstablishedUser007: Now, that is not the solution, is it? Go through some popular questions, try to infer what is common among all the top voted questions and answers and try to ask compelling questions. Burn not your house to fright the mouse away.

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that is archaic - never heard it. – Joe Blow Feb 2 at 12:18
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@JoeBlow - The proverb is structured that way. I have re-phrased it to suit modern English to the best of my ability. – BiscuitBoy Feb 2 at 12:33
    
This is the most literal match to the original phrase, basically just replacing the rat with a mouse, and adding a rhyme in the process. I've still never heard it in common usage before, but the meaning is pretty clear. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 2 at 22:19
    
"Don't burn your house to fright a mouse" seems a good alternative. – Theraot Feb 3 at 3:13

Another option is:

To use a sledgehammer to crack a nut :

  • to use disproportionate force or expense to overcome a minor problem.

(The Phrase Finder)

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This is the same as @Lawrence's answer – user1108 Feb 2 at 10:46
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@user1108 - he added it to his original answer at the same time if not moments later than I did. – Josh61 Feb 2 at 10:48
    
what a cheeky devil! – Joe Blow Feb 2 at 12:18
    
@Josh61 - I didn't check the edit history. No problem. – user1108 Feb 2 at 12:38

We used to say in our native language which means "if the nail grows too much, one should not cut the finger"

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this one is cute, i like it. – sgroves Feb 2 at 15:15
    
I used to tell this to my sister always. – Mambo Feb 2 at 15:19

The entire phenomena being described here - of doing something to solve your problem but ending up worse for it in the end - could be thought of as a pyrrhic victory

Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way. However, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit.

Though the comparison isn't perfect - phyrric victories are more related to losing more than your foe, such that a wider 'war' is lost in the effort, whereas in your example, the personal 'war' is won, but the cost steeper than reasonable.

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This is the most accurate answer that I've seen so far. All other have been relatively similar, but this denotes damaging loss for virtually no gain, or worse, speculated gain. – kayleeFrye_onDeck Feb 2 at 21:04

The one that I'm most familiar with is:

Like using a bazooka as a flyswatter.

For example, this was referenced in the title of one episode of the TV show The Good Wife.

But apparently there's all kind of permutations for this regarding large firearm (bazooka, cannon, shotgun, etc.) and small inoffensive creature (fly, mouse, sparrow, etc.).

More:

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I've read Sci-Fi novels (Honor Harrigton series?) that used variants with sci-fi weaponry. So I think this is A Thing, but you can use whatever ridiculously uncalled for weaponry or blunt instrument strikes your fancy at the moment. – T.E.D. Feb 2 at 16:56

Don't use a steamroller to open a can of soup

for reference.. the opposite

There is no kill like overkill

or

If you're going to be a bear, be a grizzly -From Smokey and Bandit

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A few phrases I've heard that kind of relate are...

I don't want to shotgun it

This phrase evokes the accuracy and precision of single projectile firearms as opposed to the spread nature of a shotguns pellets. Shotgunning something implies that you are causing collateral damage in an attempt to solve the problem.

A related example when you DO in fact want a massively disproportionate response to a small problem is that...

The virus had permeated my operating system folder, so I decided I should nuke the OS and reinstall.

Which of course states that something is so loathsome to you that you're willing to destroy everything in it's vicinity to get rid of it.

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Where I'm from, shotgunning something implies drinking it as fast as it can flow out of a secondary hole in the container. If you used it in another sense, you'd be quite likely to be misunderstood. – T.E.D. Feb 2 at 17:00
    
I understand "nuke" in the computer context to mean erase very thoroughly — in a situation where very thorough eradication is called for. I believe that it does not carry the overkill connotation that this question is about. – Scott Feb 3 at 5:57
    
I've always of heard 'shotgunning' as randomly trying multiple fixes for a problem instead of working in an orderly linear fashion. – Joe L. Feb 3 at 6:20

I think the answers have suggested many variants on this, but I would add the version I have heard:

Don't use an anti-aircraft gun to kill a bumblebee.

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By my count, this is the fourth answer to refer to killing insects with unnecessarily powerful means. – Scott Feb 3 at 5:53
    
@Scott I wonder what that says about us as a culture. – Cort Ammon Feb 3 at 6:11
    
That we hate insects even more than we hate rodents? :-)   ⁠ – Scott Feb 3 at 6:42

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