Do we have a word to describe the situation when someone wants to achieve something, but plans and takes the way which would take him to a different result.

For example, a person might want to have a better relationship with others, and as a plan, starts joking, by which others get offended and the first goal won't be met.

Or when a company wants to make a fast car, but because of high-speed ans stability, increases the weight of the car, which in turn reduces the overall speed.

In Arabic, I think it's called "نقض غرض", literally translated means "aim violation" or "aim reversal".

Do we have anything for this in English?

  • 弄巧成拙 in Chinese.
    – Terry Li
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 16:54
  • "Blowback" has this meaning, but it's mainly used in the context of military actions, espionage, international diplomacy etc. It's becoming more widely used, but it's not yet common Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 18:09
  • I saw this commercial yesterday, and was reminded of this question. That plan sure backfired...
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 20:32

10 Answers 10


You can say the plans backfired or the plans are counterproductive when the effect is opposite of what is intended.

  • 2
    I won't knock it down a point, but both 'back-fired' and 'counterproductive' indicate only a failure, without the unexpected success element to the OP.
    – Epiphany
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 4:53
  • 8
    +1 I don't understand the two negative comments. It is entirely appropriate to say that the plans back fired for both examples given in the question. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 7:12
  • 10
    I think the problem is that the title of the question poorly matches the actual question that is described. Backfired seems to be a perfect match for the literal "aim reversal" substitute that is requested, but the title of this question seems too broad given the explanation.
    – ghoppe
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 8:46
  • 2
    @ghoppe: I think you've hit on the crux of the issue. I took a crack at editing the title in hopes of fixing the problem.
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 13:28
  • 3
    @EdwinAshworth - You don't remember correctly. You can see the revision history here. The only thing altered was the title not the examples. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 15:52

This might be called an unintended consequence

In the social sciences, unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action.

  • 1
    It seems strange that the string 'unintended consequence' should be awarded compound-noun status as it's so transparent. Yet it heads a Wikipedia article which includes: 'The idea of unintended consequences dates back at least to Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment, and consequentialism...' Surely the concept was recognised way before these events - the discovery of metal smelting perhaps being a serendipity during pottery firing. I'm never quite sure how these things work linguistically. I suppose 'intended consequence' isn't considered worthy of compounding. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 6:59
  • Consequence' is usually used to imply a negative by-product of an action, although technically by the words definition you are correct. I think the first half of your answer combined with 'attribute' to make 'unintended attribute' a better term. Attribute by definition: an inherent characteristic; also : an accidental quality.
    – Epiphany
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 7:54

Just like p.s.w.g said, the word serendipity aptly describes an "accidental discovery" and is usually used in a positive sense, such as indicating success.

If you are trying to describe a situation in which something goes wrong in an unexpected fashion, then a word that comes to my mind is setback which The Free Dictionary defines as:




1. An unanticipated or sudden check in progress; a change from better to worse.

For example: "A serious setback for the peace process."

Synonyms include: problem, difficulty, hitch, complication, upset, disappointment, misfortune, mishap, reversal.


Some of the suggestions here are good and apply to either positive or negative unexpected outcomes.

I thought a term that can be applied to both scenarios is situational irony


One that fits the two examples quite nicely - actions being self-defeating.

Someone has an aim, but their actions towards that aim turn out to cause them to fail. Here's an article with clear examples: Five Self-Defeating Behaviors that Ruin Companies and Careers - for example, "Mission creep" - a project tries to achieve more and more, and ends up achieving less.

It's often used it the context of "self-defeating strategies", "self-defeating behaviours" or "self-defeating habits" - for example, worrying about problems so much you do nothing about them, being so afraid of embarrassing yourself that nervousness makes you do something foolish, or getting so incoherently angry at a perceived injustice your friends lose sympathy with you.

Note that it's sometimes also used to mean something like "self-undermining", which is a bit different, and there's also a psychological condition called "self-defeating personality disorder", which is a bit more along these lines.


This is often called... 'Discovery', as the majority of advancements in technology and science were the result of just such a scenario as the OP question. But we as arrogant humans need to dress up the accidental, yet beneficial, side effect that came about from the failure of the original endevour by calling it a 'discovery', rather than what it really was, which was a lucky screw-up.


Misadventure - The dictionary definition is the same as mishap, but I usually use it for a longer string of events.

I was trying to get home on time but I had a bit of a misadventure when I took a wrong turn and ended up getting caught behind a parade and when I finally got out of there I was going a bit too fast and was pulled over for speeding.

  • 1
    this word has negative connotations and also has an element of suddenness, which I don't think the OP is implying
    – user49727
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 12:15
  • 2
    @user49727 Both of OP's examples describe negative outcomes.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 13:12

Elaborating on Jim's answer, I would be more inclined to use 'Unforeseen Consequence' rather than 'Unintended'

  • Please explain why.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 13:12
  • It's just an expression I've seen used more than 'unintended'. No hard and fast 'you should use this instead', I would just be more inclined to use it. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 13:16
  • Thanks for your contribution. The reason for my comment was that, if you look at other answers here, they generally give some reason or explanation for the answers, rather than merely expressing an opinion. You may like to look at How do I write a good answer?.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 13:39

I'd say that although we do have these mishap/misadventure words, native speakers more often will look at the cause rather than the result, and say "The designer of this car made some poor choices." Rather than saying "the designer of this car had a mishap."


Destiny could be used to describe "Trying to achieve something, but achieving another thing". Setting a goal but achieving something else instead. You get what you deserve, not more, not less.

  • 1
    That would only apply if you believed in it - not applicable universally
    – user49727
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 10:36
  • @user49727 Since I believe in destiny, it applies from my point of view. It differs with each person. Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 12:06

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