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I'm an American living in the Netherlands who is learning Dutch. There's an idiom in Dutch that describes performing a needless/futile activity, "water naar de zee dragen," which literally translates to "carrying water to the sea." My Dutch parents-in-law asked me if there was an English equivalent, but I couldn't think of one.

In doing some searches online, I found that the English translation given for the this idiom is always "carrying coals to Newcastle." This was the first time I'd ever come across the phrase, and subsequent searches revealed that it was indeed of British origin, though one site I found did claim that it was an American phrase. However, neither I nor any of my culturally American friends have ever heard of this phrase.

Is there an American English idiom or phrase that carries the same connotations for carrying out a futile activity?

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My husband uses "coals to Newcastle" all the time. The first time I heard it, he had to explain it to me. He's from Massachusetts, I'm from California. Maybe it's a New England thing? –  JPmiaou Aug 15 '11 at 16:13
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I’m American, and I’ve been familiar with it as long as I can remember. I no longer remember whether I acquired it from my parents, who were from the Pacific Northwest, or from reading, but I was familiar with it at least by the time I was 12. Despite its obvious British origin, I’ve never thought of it as a non-American idiom, or as being more likely to require explanation than any other standard idiom or cultural reference. –  Brian M. Scott Aug 15 '11 at 16:43
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@JPmiaou I'm from New England and I have never heard it before. –  KitFox Aug 15 '11 at 16:46
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Strange. The Dutch are pumping water into the sea all the time, lest much of the Netherlands would become flooded. That's what all the windmills were for. –  starblue Aug 15 '11 at 18:27
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@starblue: Yes, but if we had to carry it ourselves, there'd be little time left for making wooden shoes. –  Cerberus Aug 16 '11 at 8:58
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28 Answers

up vote 51 down vote accepted

"Bring sand to the beach." I have heard this many times, I am from NYC. I've heard it used most often to describe bringing a date to a place where there will be many women.

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Governments actually fund a practice called beach nourishment, which is, in fact, the practice of bringing sand to the beach. –  Jay Elston Aug 15 '11 at 21:09
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or to Sahara as I have heard it –  mplungjan Aug 15 '11 at 21:21
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@Jay: While it's true this activity often serves an important purpose, so does bringing water to the sea in the Netherlands (as noted by @starblue). At least this phrase is parallel in imagery and implication to water/sea and coals/Newcastle. (Bringing more stuff to a place that already has lots of it.) This should be higher up than those answers that really don't correspond to the Dutch or British versions. –  John Y Aug 15 '11 at 21:45
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Sand and Sahara also are a nice alliteration. –  starblue Aug 16 '11 at 8:13
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I’ve not heard this one. It’s self-explanatory, but I certainly wouldn’t point to it as a specifically American equivalent of coals to Newcastle. –  Brian M. Scott Aug 16 '11 at 19:16
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Here are a few:

"Selling ice to an Eskimo"

"Locking the stable door after the horse has bolted." (or) "Shutting the barn door after the horse has gone."

"Preaching to the choir" (a phrase originated by George Bernard Shaw in the play The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles: A Vision of Judgment)

"Giving a drink of water to a drowning man"

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+1 Was typing up an Eskimo answer when I got the note about your added answer. The problem is that this relates more to trying (or being able to) sell things that should be unsellable. The latter phrase I think is more about someone being sort of pleasantly malicious. Preaching to the choir is good, but limited to talking. –  T.E.D. Aug 15 '11 at 14:52
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I agree with T.E.D.'s statements that most of these have a specific implication. "Locking the stable door after the horse has bolted" implies that an action was taken too late rather than being pointless in its entirety. –  FallenAngelEyes Aug 15 '11 at 15:03
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I think that "Preaching to the choir" fits the intended meaning the best, as it implies you're spending your effort talking to the one group that doesn't need to hear what you're saying. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 15 '11 at 15:06
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-1 The selling Ice to an Eskimo is generally used to imply incredible sales skills rather than a pointless task. None of these really embody the English Idiom. Even the final is more about giving someone something they dont need when they have a need. This implies doing something that has no need or effect. –  Chad Aug 15 '11 at 17:06
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@Chad -- I have heard it both ways -- "You may as well try selling ice to an Eskimo.", or "He could sell ice to an Eskimo.". –  Jay Elston Aug 15 '11 at 17:46
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These aren't exactly what you're looking for, I think, but they're related.

  • Re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic (a superficial, cosmetic change to something with a major underlying structural problem)
  • Teaching grandmother to suck eggs (giving advice to someone who is already an expert on the subject)
  • A Chinese fire drill (a large, ineffective, and chaotic activity carried out by a group of people that accomplishes nothing—but note that, as the Wikipedia article points out, this phrase is uncommon today due to the politically incorrect ethnic reference.)
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Asking children to put their toys away. –  Mike Christian Aug 15 '11 at 15:23
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"Deck chairs on the Titanic" was going to be my answer. It's an ultimately pointless activity, but the inference (that it's all going down in flames) is a little different as you said. –  KeithS Aug 15 '11 at 15:42
    
Indeed, 'asking' is futile. Requiring, with consistent discipline, eventually yields results. –  Eric Wilson Aug 15 '11 at 15:45
    
The Titanic example is the one I'm familiar with. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 15 '11 at 17:15
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@KeithS: I'm pretty sure the Titanic didn't go down in flame. (; Just saying. –  aslum Aug 15 '11 at 18:07
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Wiktionary suggests

Bring owls to Athens

which has the same sense as coal to Newcastle, in that there are already lots of owls (supposedly) in Athens. But I've never heard anyone say this and wouldn't have understood it.

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I found that phrase as well, but like you, I'd never heard it before and wouldn't have immediately understood the implication. –  FallenAngelEyes Aug 15 '11 at 15:23
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"Owls to Athens" may be related to the goddess Athena, who was associated with an owl. –  Jay Elston Aug 15 '11 at 16:33
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In German this is well known ("Eulen nach Athen tragen"). –  starblue Aug 15 '11 at 18:23
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What a marvellous phrase. But only classical scholars would understand it (which doesn't of course restrict who uses it). –  TimLymington Aug 15 '11 at 20:14
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This expression also exists in Dutch (uilen naar Athene dragen), though it is less common. From Wikipedia: In poetry from Homer, an oral tradition of the eighth or 7th century BC, onward, Athena's most common epithet is glaukopis (γλαυκώπις), which usually is translated as, bright-eyed or with gleaming eyes.[38] The word is a combination of glaukos (γλαύκος, meaning gleaming, silvery, and later, bluish-green or gray) and ops (ώψ, eye, or sometimes, face). ... –  Cerberus Aug 16 '11 at 9:08
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While not the same connotation, I like "nailing Jello to a tree", which suggests a futile act.

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I think this gets closer to "Bringing coals to Newcastle" than many of the others posted. I used to love this expression (mostly for the visual image it conjures up), I can't believe I'd forgotten it! –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 15 '11 at 17:03
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IMHO this is different. It is easy but pointless to bring coals to Newcastle, while it is impossible to nail Jello to a tree. –  starblue Aug 15 '11 at 18:33
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To me this evokes immense frustration. I vaguely remember it in the context of trying to get evasive people (bureaucrats?) to make a firm statement or commit to a course of action. I think I may have seen it in a Heinlein novel, and it may have been "jelly" before it was "Jello". –  Beta Aug 15 '11 at 19:16
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I think the meaning of this one is closer to "herding cats": not only futile, but also nearly impossible. –  JPmiaou Aug 16 '11 at 3:05
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It is actually possible to nail a Jello to a tree - I've seen it done (although I'll admit it's pretty pointless!). –  MikeJ-UK Aug 16 '11 at 11:33
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I've heard "Watering the garden (or lawn) in the rain". The meaning would probably be very clear to most people but I strongly suspect it's not in common usage (except to the few people I know that use it often).

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Oh, I once met a guy who used to do exactly that (water his plants under the rain). –  CesarGon Aug 15 '11 at 23:27
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"Tilting at Windmills" has a connotation of needless/futile. Although admittedly also with a connotation towards fighting unwinnable battles.

Sisyphean comes to mind as an adjective. This could be extrapolated as "pushing a stone uphill" but it tends to only be properly understood among more academic types, due to its roots being in Greek Mythology.

"Pushing rope" or "pushing a rope uphill" would be the closest thing I can think of that I've actually heard in conversation.

Swimming upstream. I agree with Frustrated. Wrong connotation.

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Swimming upstream implies difficult but not futile. Salmon need to swim upstream to spawn! –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 15 '11 at 18:04
    
+1 for Tilting at windmills, but it doesn't really fit the question fully. You can succeed at bringing coal to Newcastle but you can never succeed at tilting at windmills. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 16 '11 at 11:57
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Also, XKCD: xkcd.com/556 –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 16 '11 at 11:58
    
@Mr. Shiny and New The idea is that bringing coal to Newcastle is redundant, an example of something unnecessary. The question asks for an example of futility specifically. I thought Sisyphean was a GREAT answer. Same with "tilting at windmills". Both express utter futility of effort. Only problem is that they are not at all American expressions. But otherwise, best answer yet IMHO. –  Feral Oink Aug 16 '11 at 22:32
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Along with some of the others already posted, there's "Spitting into the ocean".

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I'd use "spinning his wheels" (or yours or hers). I think the implication is that the wheels are moving but you're not going anywhere. I looked it up and the free dictionary says:

spin your wheels (American informal) to waste time doing things that achieve nothing (often in continuous tenses) If we're just spinning our wheels, let us know and we'll quit. See also: spin, wheel Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2006. Reproduced with permission.

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+1 because it is probably the most commonly-used American phrase that means (mostly) the same thing. There is a tiny bit of a connotation difference, in that "spinning your wheels" can sometimes imply that you are doing a useful activity incorrectly in some way. –  BradC Aug 16 '11 at 14:47
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I don't think it’s specifically American, but I have heard the following been used:

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"Beating a dead horse" has more of the connotation of doing something long after it's useless though, implying that at one time, there was still a point to doing it. Both "water naar de zee dragen" and "carrying coals to Newcastle" are already outright pointless. –  FallenAngelEyes Aug 15 '11 at 14:25
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@FallenAngelEyes: I agree it's not quite what you're after, but at least beating a dead horse is pointless and futile. This is more than I can say about several of the other offerings here. –  John Y Aug 15 '11 at 21:58
    
Agreed @John-Y. I up voted. –  Feral Oink Aug 16 '11 at 22:43
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One we use commonly in our office is

It's like herding cats.

(To describe getting the academics to submit paperwork on time.)

Alternatively, there is "catching wind in a net" or "trying to empty the ocean with a bucket."

Or you could say it's a wild-goose chase.

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While that is a very fun phrase, it's usually referred to imply the difficulty of a given activity rather than its fruitlessness. Neither carrying water to the sea nor coals to Newcastle are necessarily difficult, but they are both futile activities. –  FallenAngelEyes Aug 15 '11 at 15:10
    
I disagree. Herding cats is an utterly pointless exercise precisely because it is impossible. –  KitFox Aug 15 '11 at 15:14
    
This is a good one, but it's IMO pretty specialized towards organizational tasks, especially organizing other people. –  KeithS Aug 15 '11 at 15:20
    
@KitΘδς, that's FallenAngelEyes's point: herding cats is difficult and therefore arguably pointless, whereas carrying water to the sea is pointless even though there's little or no challenge in it. –  Kevin Aug 15 '11 at 15:36
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@KitΘδς: There are exceptional cases (such as in a vet's office) where herding cats may not be pointless, but it is still very difficult (not completely impossible because I've seen it done). –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 15 '11 at 16:07
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The phrase is in widespread use in America. I suspect that some of those who use it don't really know the origins of the phrase (and have no clue where Newcastle is), but it's in pretty common use.

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The suggestions in the other answers are, by and large, phrases with different meanings. –  Alger Aug 15 '11 at 16:31
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I agree with the author of the post... I have never heard of it... If it is an American thing, it's regional at best. –  Rikon Aug 15 '11 at 17:13
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@Rikon: I don’t think that it’s particularly regional at all; I’ve lived on both coasts and in the Midwest, and I’ve encountered it everywhere. I suspect, though, that it’s often acquired from reading rather than from surrounding speakers, so it may be somewhat sociolectal. –  Brian M. Scott Aug 21 '11 at 3:35
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@Rikon: No, certainly not slang. To be honest, I’ve always thought of it as something that any reasonably widely-read person would have encountered, more nearly comparable to a common literary reference than to a slang expression. –  Brian M. Scott Aug 22 '11 at 1:27
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I've been through both University and Grad-school in the US, lived all over the South, and in much of the south- and mid-west and I've never heard it, nor read it. –  Kyle Pearson Aug 28 '11 at 5:04
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Programmers tend to use the expressions "yak shaving" and "bikeshedding". These expressions tend to be used in reference to losing view of the big picture and spending inordinate amounts of time on incredibly trivial things.

Another option is "gilding the lily", although it carries a connotation of an activity which occurs after a task should already have been completed, or has already been satisfactorily addressed by other means.

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To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess. –  Jon Purdy Aug 15 '11 at 20:54
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The irony of using a term from Shakespeare as an American English equivalent to a British expression is not lost on me. –  Zoot Aug 15 '11 at 21:01
    
I learned something today :) –  James Poulson Aug 15 '11 at 23:36
    
This really doesn't answer the question at all. None of the three expressions are uniquely American, nor are they specifically about futility. –  Feral Oink Aug 16 '11 at 22:10
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From the wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bikeshedding) bikeshedding: Futile investment of time and energy in marginal technical issues, often including annoying propaganda. --These terms are admittedly specific, but all of the activities are somewhat futile. –  Zoot Aug 17 '11 at 1:54
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I once attended a technical presentation near Tektronix headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The presenter was from the UK, and for some odd turn of events, his company had actually moved some coal towards Newcastle once.

The best part was that after having made the reference, later in his presentation he talked about designing some high-speed oscilloscopes. One of the first clients? Tektronix. (The irony here being that Tek was the world leader in scopes for many decades.)

So the US equivalent could be "selling scopes to Tektronix". :)

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I think you should just say "this is like carrying water to the sea." The meaning is clear, regardless of what language or culture you say it in.

The fact that it isn't a common expression may actually make it more effective.

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Perhaps EL&U would be the perfect place to coin such a phrase.

  • Taking crooks to Washington
  • Taking rain to Seattle
  • Taking cocaine to Hollywood
  • Taking idiots to [name a place]
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Taking war to Afghanistan? (Sorry, couldn't resist) –  Benjol Aug 16 '11 at 7:02
    
Taking oil to Texas? –  Fillet Aug 16 '11 at 8:06
    
@Fillet washingtontimes.com/news/2011/aug/8/… –  mgb Aug 16 '11 at 12:49
    
"Taking war to the Middle East" or "Taking war to the Holy Land". –  Jared Updike Aug 18 '11 at 18:23
    
@Martin: that link makes me quite sad. I should be laughing somehow but I just can't. :-( –  Jared Updike Aug 18 '11 at 18:24
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Also, if you'd like something slightly more pointed (albeit vulgar), there's "pissing into the wind."

Sources: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pissing%20into%20the%20wind (Definition 1)

http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/be+pissing+into+the+wind

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The implication of "pissing into the wind" also includes that you're doing something that will have negative consequences for yourself. This isn't quite the same. –  FallenAngelEyes Aug 15 '11 at 20:39
    
idioms.thefreedictionary.com/_/… –  Dennis Aug 17 '11 at 23:53
    
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I'm not sure it this is American or not but I know of the phrase, "Selling tea to China." which approximates, "Taking coal to Newcastle."

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Newcastle is a city in the north east of England and coal mining was a major part of the industry of the region for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Carrying coals to Newcastle was therefore a pointless activity as it had enough coal of its own.

It wasn't necessarily a difficult or counter-productive task, only one which was unnecessary.

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This doesn't answer the question at all! The question is about something equivalent, that is an American English saying. It isn't a request for clarification of the coals to Newcastle expression. –  Feral Oink Aug 16 '11 at 22:12
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"Carrying water in a sieve." is one I've heard used.

I've also heard the Newcastle, etc.

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You cannot carry water in a sieve, but you can bring coals to Newcastle. –  Jay Elston Aug 15 '11 at 21:12
    
@Jay: you can if you apply a liberal amount of grease to it first. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 16 '11 at 11:52
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Sisyphean as carrying out a futile task repeatedly like Sysiphus, a Greek mythological figure that was doomed to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill in Hades as a punishment for defying the gods.

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You need to to more than just post a link. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 15 '11 at 16:01
    
How about, "Sisyphean as carrying out a futile task repeatedly like Sysiphus, a Greek mythological figure that was doomed to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill in Hades as a punishment for defying the gods" ? –  James Poulson Aug 15 '11 at 23:36
    
I don't think this quite answers the question. –  simchona Aug 16 '11 at 0:57
    
Actually, I DO think this answers the question rather well. Only problem is that it is identical to this answer english.stackexchange.com/questions/37997/… which was posted 2 minutes earlier than @Art posted his answer. That's very close, both could have been entered at the same time really. –  Feral Oink Aug 16 '11 at 22:46
    
Sisyphus didn't merely "endlessly roll a boulder up a hill". His punishment was to bring a boulder to the top of the hill. But every time Sisyphus was almost there, at the tip of the hill, the boulder would roll back downhill and Sisyphus would have to start over. In effect, it was a punishment of an endless futile work. –  wilhelmtell Aug 17 '11 at 1:18
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I'm from New York, and I've always used "carrying coals to Newcastle". It's not specifically British.

I have read, BTW, that the medieval French equivalent was "bringing wool to England". Apparently English wool was popular in France...

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Another I've heard before is emptying the ocean with a teaspoon (or lake or sea or swimming pool).

Not sure how common it is, but it certainly conveys a similar idea of uselessness (although for a slightly different reason than the original carrying coals to Newcastle)

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How about "an exercise in futility?" It's not as picturesque of an idiom but it's certainly spot on in expressing "pointlessness" as opposed to "unimportance", "difficulty", or "tediousness" like some of the other answers.

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Not really an answer to the question, but an explanation of the origin of the original phrase.

A number of the answers seem to be based on minor misunderstandings of the meaning of the original.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne is a major port in the North East of England, and the North-East (specifically the area somewhat to the south of Newcastle around Stockton) is a substantial coal-mining area, but - more importantly - the most important coal-mining area close to the sea in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before the railway arrived, it was inordinately expensive to transport coal by land.

London is the capital of Britain, by far the biggest city, and it's cold in winter, so people need fuel to heat their houses. England has been short of wood since the Tudors, so the primary fuel used to heat houses in London was coal. Coal was transferred by land or canal to the port of Newcastle-upon-Tyne where it was shipped along the coast to London.

Consequently, the coal in London had (almost) all been carried from Newcastle. Carrying coals to Newcastle is not just pointless, but it's the wrong way around - coal comes from Newcastle.

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I am familiar with the phrase

  • Shovelling sand against the tide.

and it's more colourful cousin

  • Shovelling shit against the tide.

Both express that whatever effort you put forth, it's going to be immediately undone ... I think that's a good expression of futility.

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It depends on the context you are using; if you are talking spare time, it might be “watching the tube,” and referring to finances, it might be “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. In the United States, we have so many idioms used each day, that we have new ones we hear all the time. I like to call it writer's or speaker's license. I think that is why people from other countries have problems at times understanding us, because they take us literally, instead of figuratively. An example would be to “kick the bucket”.

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"Go find you a white crayon and color a fucking zebra" - This lyric from Eminem's song "My Mom" (off of his Rehab album), represents the ultimate in futile efforts: coloring a black and white coloring book white.

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Welcome to EL&U. But do you really think there's much chance people here will upvote this particular line from Eminem as an American English equivalent of the British idiom "carrying coals to Newcastle"? –  FumbleFingers Aug 17 '11 at 2:29
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It's not really that it doesn't take my fancy, just that it probably won't get any upvotes and may well attract downvotes. Different standards apply to comments here though. You might even have got upvotes if you'd posted this as a comment, because it is quite a colourful (pardon the pun!) image. Whatever - I hope I'll have just cause to upvote one of your answers soon! :) –  FumbleFingers Aug 23 '11 at 15:05
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Everyone has their own attitude in such matters, but collectively the EL&U community is (more or less) agreed that "Answers" should be attempts to answer the question. If you're just sharing related information in a way that doesn't fit that constraint, it should be posted as comments. Even if you don't care about gaining reputation points as such, you should at least recognise that they reflect what other people think of your contributions. A wise man tempers his words according to his audience. –  FumbleFingers Aug 23 '11 at 16:11
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The poster was looking for an example in American English that he could present to his Dutch friend. Chances are he's heard of Eminem, perhaps the very song I've quoted. Something they're potentially familiar with would be an excellent example. This is my attempt at answering the question - how does it fail to do so? Also, thank you for letting me know what a wise man would do. I was hoping someone would jump in, comment with passive aggression, and lecture me about wisdom. –  Ken Gregory Aug 23 '11 at 17:18
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As a general principle EL&U doesn't like even being asked to interpret the meaning of words/phrases taken from song lyrics. It's unlikely Eminem's phrasing there will ever gain the status of being a recognised "idiom", so I think it does not meet OP's or EL&U's criteria. If you feel it does, I can only repeat my advice that you should at least take some notice of votes (or lack of them) against your posts, since this will give an indication of whether others share your attitudes. –  FumbleFingers Aug 23 '11 at 17:52
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