Is there a word/metaphor/idiom for something that has value, but is worthless (or even harmful) in the current situation?

To use a couple of monetary examples:

  1. A check for $1,000,000 has potential value, but unless you can get to a bank that value is inaccessible.

  2. A duffel bag full of cash is also extremely valuable, but if you try to hang onto it after being thrown from your speedboat in an explosion, it will drag you to the bottom of the Long Island Sound.


10 Answers 10


The metaphoric gist I'm getting from your question is :

"the cure is worse than the disease"

"don't throw water on a grease fire" and the related "douse the embers in gasoline"

an environmentalist friend of mine once said "they're still solving their problems with cane toads and kudzu" which made me laugh and seems totally appropriate. These were invasive species that were originally brought in to solve smaller problems than the one's they created.

  • This answer most closely matches the idea of something intended to help that ends up harming.
    – bonh
    Apr 21, 2014 at 17:34

A number of writers have used the image of a golden millstone to describe something of great value that becomes a great burden. Here are three early examples. From "Prof. Norton's Dante," in The Critic (January 23, 1892):

The wand of Dante points to this and that mystic canvas, while the poet explains in exquisite musical cantos one after the other of the great circles of pictures that pass before him in the triple allegory. He is one of those men to whom one becomes attached in youth and remains attached until old age,—a sort of golden millstone hung round one's neck, a haunting presence that will not be allayed.

From Oliver Herford, "The Miser Elf," in St. Nicholas (September 1894):

But, ah! with all his golden dust and jewels rich and rare,

This little elf was never free from misery and care.

The wealth that might have conjured up all good things at his beck

Was just a golden millstone that hung around his neck.

He never had one moment's peace, his treasure out of sight,

Though he buried it for safety in a different place each night;

Each night the thought of robbers made him close his eyes in vain,

And just as soon as it was light, he'd dig it up again.

From Marie Corelli, The Treasure of Heaven (1925):

Death, however, in its fiercest shape, had now put an abrupt end to any such benevolent scheme, whether or not it might have been feasible,—and absorbed in a kind of lethargic reverie, he again and again asked himself what use he was in the world—what could he do with the brief remaining portion of his life?—and how he could dispose, to his own satisfaction, of the vast wealth which, like a huge golden mill-stone, hung round his neck, dragging him down to the grave?

  • Oh bravo! I was looking for this yesterday, but Shakespeare's All that glitters is not gold kept popping into my head and I couldn't remember it.
    – Tucker
    Apr 17, 2014 at 4:49

The closest phrase is probably "double-edged sword", indicating that the value is dependent on the circumstance. However, the phrase does not exactly coincide with the concept you are trying to express, because money is good in the vast majority of circumstances, while a double-edged sword implies equal benefit and harm. The adjectives "agathokakological" and "bittersweet" have similar denotations. The colloquial expression "One man's trash is another man's treasure" (indicating that something worthless in one context is valuable in another) could be reversed, forming the anti-proverb "One man's treasure is another man's trash". Additionally, the term "Midas Touch" could be reinterpreted as something that seems valuable prima facie, but in certain circumstances is deleterious (as when King Midas accidentally turned his daughter to gold). Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a word that perfectly matches that concept. I hope these related terms can be adequately substituted.


What is the context or audience? A business talk and a novel would use very different language, of course.

The phrase that occurred to me was "situationally appropriate," which judging from a quick search is a big research focus of design, psychology, IT, and the legal fields.

However, I suspect that's not the connotation you were going for.

There's a whole bunch of phrases that hint at this:

  • "water to a drowning man"
  • "coals to Newcastle"

See this ESE entry.

  • Thanks, "coals to Newcastle" is beautiful, and that entry was a good read. I guess I'm aiming more towards the "harmful" side of things -- as though bringing coals to Newcastle would somehow be bad for Newcastle.
    – bonh
    Apr 16, 2014 at 19:52
  • @bonh: the "water to a drowning man" metaphor reflects that harmful idea: what a drowning man needs is less water, not more.
    – Marthaª
    Apr 16, 2014 at 22:17
  • @Marthaª you're absolutely right. I don't think I'm looking for "more of what we've already got too much of" -- it's more like "something new, intended to help, does more harm than good."
    – bonh
    Apr 16, 2014 at 23:56
  • Consider a thirsty man floating in open sea. All that water, and he cannot drink it. The thought of it...
    – SPRBRN
    Apr 17, 2014 at 13:49
  • "Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink."
    – bonh
    Apr 17, 2014 at 17:02

For more extreme examples, a fitting phrase might be "the golden handcuffs." I first heard that in community college many years ago when an English professor mentioned that he used to be a lawyer, describing the profession as "the golden handcuffs" since he made a lot of money but had to work long, stressful hours.

  • Golden handcuffs refer to being "trapped" in a position because there are significant positive financial incentives to stay there.
    – Eric
    Apr 16, 2014 at 23:15

How about:

Screen door on a submarine


A check for $1,000,000 has potential value, but unless you can get to a bank that value is inaccessible.

... reminds me a lot of ...

a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush


"Currently useless" or "currently worthless" seems to get at the first example, but I suspect you're looking for something a little less obvious.

As to the second example, you could say that something "might be his undoing." That thing could be valuable, or good, but it obviously doesn't have to be. "Heeding/following ____'s siren song" certainly connotes something dangerous, but has even less value inherently attached to it.


'What use is salt that has lost its savour?'

applies to the first case, and has a celebrated provenance.

'X is a good servant but a bad master' [where X often = 'fire']

applies to the second case.


Although it describes more of a worthless thing than a potentially harmful thing, I was thinking the * without a * idiom.

Type "like a * without an *, a * without a *" into google and you'll come up with a bunch of results. I think this is what you were going for, but I'm not sure.

For example, from the silver dollar song:

"A man without a woman is like a ship without a sail"


  • "Because a man without a woman,
  • Is like a ship without a sail,
  • he's like a boat without a rudder
  • is like a fish without a tail,"

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