43

Context - One might use it in the following situations:

  • "An employee has an argument with her boss and a dispute follows." (she gets fired a few weeks later)

  • "A student having an argument with his teacher over his grades takes the problem to the headmaster." (the headmaster doesn't want to get into it and says the teacher is right)

  • "Workers go on strike for a week, get no raise and are considered absent from work."

You can say it to your son/daughter as a prediction: “Be careful mate, remember…(the saying)…

And you can also say it when he/she comes to you for comfort and support: “I told you, mate, they say that........(the saying).

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  • 15
    I don't see the common thread between your examples, but for your final fill-in-the-blank: you can't fight City Hall? (PS: no, I didn't downvote you.)
    – Dan Bron
    Dec 8, 2014 at 23:48
  • 11
    Be careful mate, you're pissing into the wind.
    – Jim
    Dec 9, 2014 at 0:17
  • 9
    Don't tug on Superman's cape. Don't spit into the wind. Don't pull the mask off the ol' Lone Ranger. And don't mess around with Jim.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 9, 2014 at 0:20
  • 7
    Fighting a losing battle.
    – Joe Dark
    Dec 9, 2014 at 0:33
  • 8
    If you want a moral: Pick your battles. Find a way to make your point without engaging in a conflict you are certain to lose. Otherwise, there seem to be a number of variations of might makes right, which is what came to my mind when reading your question.
    – jxh
    Dec 9, 2014 at 4:15

21 Answers 21

90

The house always wins

is a proverb that comes out of gambling, where the house, the people running the gambling establishment, are setting up the rules so that they themselves are favored.

3
  • 7
    Hey, an answer with a saying that's actually in common use! Props. Dec 10, 2014 at 17:28
  • 3
    As a note: This doesn't mean the weakest always lose. This means the strongest always wins (others, strong or weak, might win or lose). It might be a more common phrase (hence the up-votes maybe) but it is less precise among some other phrases mentioned. (I don't say it is unrelated).
    – ermanen
    Dec 10, 2014 at 18:46
  • 1
    This saying is in common use, but it doesn't fit the question. The house "wins" on average, in the long run, by skewing the odds, but every gambler wins a hand now and then, every night some gamblers leave the house richer than when they went in, and a few actually quit while they're ahead. We're looking for a game in which there is no such element of chance.
    – Beta
    Dec 14, 2014 at 6:13
45

There's an English proverb that seems to cover this situation (ironically or otherwise), namely:

Might is right

which also exists as

Might makes right

The explanation plus example at thefreedictionary.com reads as follows:

The belief that you can do what you want because you are the most powerful person or country:

To allow this invasion to happen will give a signal to every petty dictator that might is right.

7
  • 28
    I've always heard "might makes right".
    – Daniel
    Dec 9, 2014 at 2:56
  • 2
    And I've always heard "might is right"
    – JoAnne
    Dec 9, 2014 at 11:39
  • @Daniel, JoAnne: maybe you should fight it out
    – user541686
    Dec 11, 2014 at 21:03
  • 4
    @Mehrdad - They might both be right. :)
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 11, 2014 at 21:13
  • @ErikKowal: I think you just won.
    – user541686
    Dec 11, 2014 at 21:22
42

One popular⁷ saying for this is

If a stone falls on an egg, alas for the egg.
If an egg falls on a stone, alas for the egg.

According to various sources, it is of Arab origin; of Chinese origin; of Cypriot Greek origin; et al. (1,2,3,4,5,6).

Part of the lyrics for a song about this appear on a mudcat.org webpage. The chorus:

If a rock falls on an egg,
Too bad, too bad for the egg
If an egg falls on a rock
Too bad for the egg.

⁷ I should, perhaps, add the qualifier “among those who specialize in sayings or proverbs about situations where the weakest party always loses” after the word “Popular”. Numerous comment votes below suggest it isn't well-known in general.

7
  • 50
    "popular" [citation needed] Dec 9, 2014 at 18:36
  • 23
    I haven't heard of this. Dec 9, 2014 at 20:23
  • 3
    Perhaps it's more of an "old" saying?
    – Brilliand
    Dec 9, 2014 at 23:45
  • 1
    This is almost exactly like Sun Tzu's advice in Art of War re: whetstones and eggs. But that is the only place I've ever heard anything like it. Dec 10, 2014 at 17:27
  • 1
    This reminds me of the lyric from "A Little Gossip" in Man of La Mancha. "Of course, I hit her back, your Grace but she's a lot harder than I am and you know what they say 'Whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone It's going to be bad for the pitcher' So I've got bruises from here to..." Dec 11, 2014 at 3:05
33

There is a proverb for this:

The weakest go to the wall


From the book "The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs" By Martin H. Manser (2007):

enter image description here enter image description here

26

He who has the gold makes the rules.

I can't find a reliable origin for this, but it seems common in political and economic criticism. It appears to be a perversion of the Golden Rule.

2
  • 3
    I've heard it as "Remember the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules.", which is much the same.
    – Centaurus
    Dec 9, 2014 at 21:43
  • 1
    @Centaurus I believe that’s the line as it occurs in Aladdin (1992). Dec 10, 2014 at 15:30
17

From Don Quixote:

Whether the pitcher hits the stone, or the stone hits the pitcher, it is bad for the pitcher

5
  • 2
    Why is the pitcher hitting anything? Shouldn't he be pitching? And why a stone? Shouldn't it be a ball? ;)
    – neminem
    Dec 9, 2014 at 21:50
  • 1
    I thought of this one too, but my impression is that it's a translation of a Spanish proverb, not one in general use in English. Dec 9, 2014 at 22:05
  • 9
    Almost certainly using the (accurate) meaning of "pitcher" to be a beaker for containing liquids. These would commonly be made of clay and would shatter on impact with a hard thing.
    – Marv Mills
    Dec 10, 2014 at 13:48
  • 6
    Up to about 1900 the primary definition of pitcher was a water container.
    – Joshua
    Dec 10, 2014 at 20:51
  • 5
    I think you two missed the winky face. Dec 11, 2014 at 16:05
15

Better to be the windshield than the bug.

2
  • I've never heard this before, but I love it; simple, yet universally relatable (at least in developed countries).
    – bcrist
    Dec 10, 2014 at 5:10
  • 6
    In UK English it would probably have to be "better to be the windscreen than the fly"...
    – AAT
    Dec 10, 2014 at 12:03
12

I'd put it this way:

Be careful, mate. You know the rule at Manor Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

This quasi-proverb is the single, catch-all commandment at the reconstituted Manor Farm in George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945).

4
  • 5
    I see this as saying "some people are more favored than others", with no direct connection to "people in power are favored".
    – Tim S.
    Dec 9, 2014 at 13:13
  • 3
    @TimS. But in context, the rule was posted by the animals in power, as a clear indication that the other rules did not apply to them. Dec 9, 2014 at 15:36
  • That is not a quote from the book. The nearest is "For once Benjamin consented to break his rule, and he read out to her what was written on the wall. There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran: ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS"
    – Henry
    Dec 12, 2014 at 0:38
  • 4
    @Henry. Apart from the capitals it looks exactly the same to me? (I think only the part inside the quotation marks is meant to be a quote from the book. The other quote-formatted part is what Sven is suggesting saying.) Dec 12, 2014 at 15:05
5
  1. The term(/phrase) “(it’s a) dog-eat-dog (world)” comes to mind.

The primary stress is that of ruthless competition, but in my mind that carries a strong implication: with decorum and ethics out the window, all that’s left is to determine who is stronger.

  1. There’s also the popular corruption of Darwin: “survival of the fittest”.

Either of these can be employed positively by someone in favor of the situation, but this second phrase is especially complimentary of those who find themselves in power.

2
  • 1
    I came here to post that "survival of the fittest" as an answer, with the caveat that it is an oversimplification of evolutionary theory, but I like your word "corruption" even better. ;-)
    – ghoppe
    Dec 10, 2014 at 16:53
  • 1
    I heard that the "dog" in this saying is not English but Hebrew, in which the word "dog" means "fish". Otherwise, it makes no sense, since dogs do not actually eat each other, but larger fish constantly eat smaller fish.
    – BlueWhale
    Dec 15, 2014 at 12:45
5

I am reminded of the Damon Runyon quote:

"The race might not always go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

2
  • 1
    The race presumably goes to the fast (or it you are recalling a hard E sound then to the fleet (of foot). Dec 10, 2014 at 2:29
  • 2
    @dmckee: The allusion is to Ecclesiastes 9:11, and the majority of Bible versions (starting with KJV) seem to prefer swift. Dec 10, 2014 at 8:59
4

"Bringing a knife to a gunfight".

That's bringing ...
Be careful not to bring ...
Nobody brings a knife ...


Or, citing Clint Eastwood:

"When a man with a rifle, meets a man with a pistol, the man with the rifle wins".

Note that this does not apply if the man with the pistol has a large sheet of armour plate under his poncho and the man with the rifle is a certified moron.

1
  • In my language (Italian), that was translated as "when a man with a pistol meets a man with a rifle, the man with a pistol is a dead man". Jan 24 at 7:10
4

The Boss is always right.

In business, which applies well to your first and third examples, there's an old saying/joke that you might see on a mug or poster:

There are two rules:

  1. The Boss is always right.
  2. If the Boss is wrong, see rule #1.

Shortened up, you might warn a colleague before he confronts the authority figure in any situation "Careful, mate. The Boss is always right."

Rule #1 has some interesting theory:

The Boss is always right.

How Rule #1 is typically applied:

Whose the Boss?

Alternatively, "The house always wins" is very good and has already been mentioned.

Another also mentioned "Whoever has the gold makes the rules" which seems close but not exactly what you are looking for. Along the same lines is "Nice guys finish last." Another close one is "Don't rock the boat."

2
  • Here (in Ireland) we'd say "Sometimes the boss is wrong, but they're always the boss". Dec 16, 2014 at 8:41
  • 1
    It would be nice if the downvote was explained.
    – user39425
    Dec 18, 2014 at 7:52
3

The original question and associated examples have one more common thread (aside from weak vs strong) and that is that the weaker party is the social beneficiary of the strong.

In that case, 'don't bite the hand that feeds you' comes to mind. The advice is, then, not to oppose the authority on which you're dependent.

This is a commonality that I think the other answers missed. The true caution that needs to be conveyed is that, even if the individual argument is won, the superior power will enact revenge in some way and the end result will be a net loss for the weaker, dependent party.

3

Two proverbs that directly address this:

  • You can't fight City Hall
  • God is on the side of the big battallions
2

One that seems to have been missed:

The Devil take the hindmost

A proverbial phrase indicating that those who lag behind will receive no aid.

Origin: The line was first recorded in print in Beaumont and Fletcher's tragic/comic play Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, 1611

{The Phrase Finder}

2

All three of your examples involve disputes with the so called "powers that be."

This is why they say the best advice in such a situation would be to "choose you battles carefully," mate.

But the title of your question gives no hope of winning, so when David meets Goliath; no bookie went out of business betting on Goliath.

4
  • 1
    +1 for how D. Vs G. works in the real world and in the context I usually find it.
    – Mazura
    Dec 9, 2014 at 17:44
  • 1
    @mazura Untrue; David can almost always win against Goliath by playing a different game. This is entirely the point of David vs Goliath; David can't win by fighting in armor like Goliath, so he wins by fighting like his people (using a slingshot). The entire point of the story is that what one considers weak may not actually be weak. You missed that point pretty hard.
    – Alice
    Dec 12, 2014 at 8:07
  • 1
    @Alice David versus Monsanto, Have farmers been sued?. I fought the law but...
    – Mazura
    Dec 12, 2014 at 16:06
  • @Mazura You indicated it was how it worked "in the real world", which is a universal statement, and literally the exact opposite of the point of David vs Goliath. Citing the existence of an example does not prove the universality of that example; just because David doesn't win all the time doesn't mean he loses all the time. Oh, and Monsanto DID lose more than a few political and legal battles; that's why the Terminator gene was abandoned.
    – Alice
    Dec 13, 2014 at 4:58
1

I always liked "It's not final because it's right, it's right because it's final" Might be a little bit of a stretch from the question, but could be applied in each of the examples

-1

“Be careful mate, no good deed goes unpunished."

Sometimes actions done with the best of intentions backfire and have unexpected and usually negative repercussions.

The three examples you give, however, are not similar to each other in the motivations ascribed to the actors.

In the first example, the working girl has an argument of unknown character. Was she unprofessional? Was she airing a legitimate grievance? If the former is the case, then she was in the wrong and was fired for her insubordination. If it is the latter, the employer is in the wrong and is guilty of wrongful termination.

In the second example, the student goes over the teacher's head to confront the teacher's superior, who cannot takes sides either out of fairness to the teacher or out of sheer laziness. This example is least like the other two.

In the third example, the workers may or may not be striking for legitimate reasons.

2
  • you have missed the common factor - weak (even in the right) still loses vs the strong
    – JamesRyan
    Dec 9, 2014 at 12:51
  • +1 I have heard this one before in this context and it would be understood by many. The link between "the weak" and "good deed" is that we have a bias to assume if the weak are taking on the strong, the weak are right thus the fight is a good deed.
    – Mike
    Dec 12, 2014 at 6:15
-4

The Nail that Sticks Out will be Hammered--Japanese proverb

5
  • 20
    that doesn't have to do with the weakest losing. It refers to the non-conformist getting attention.
    – dnagirl
    Dec 9, 2014 at 2:52
  • That's your interpretation, dna. The Japanese, I'm sure, would differ.
    – user3847
    Dec 9, 2014 at 4:34
  • 2
    What does a Japanese proverb have to do with English? Dec 9, 2014 at 10:37
  • 4
    @user3847 no, thats what it means in Japan too. The difference is that they use conformism as a positive. Still nothing to do with this Q
    – JamesRyan
    Dec 9, 2014 at 12:53
  • +1 I take this as meaning "Keep your head down and don't make trouble". It fits as possible advice to all three examples. The strong vs weak theme is in the background, not as blatant, but still there. Why they able to hammer that nail? Because they are strong and you are weak. Remember that, mate.
    – Mike
    Dec 12, 2014 at 6:23
-4

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Somewhere it means that, if chain breaks it would be due to its weakest part.

Reference: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/the-weakest-link.html

3
  • 7
    I don't think this is that relevant to the OP's question. That saying is supposed to be metaphoric for teamwork, which doesn't really apply here. Dec 9, 2014 at 9:59
  • I agree that this saying is mainly focuses on teamwork. But inherently it is denoting that the reason for breakage of the chain is its weakest part.
    – jaczjill
    Dec 9, 2014 at 12:04
  • No, the question is not focusing on teamwork. Dec 10, 2014 at 12:35
-6

There is a proverb in malayalam lanugage(lang in kerala, india) like

"where there is flesh, the knife moves"

I heard this as my grandma says..

1
  • 8
    Welcome to EL&U. Please note that this is not a discussion forum, but a Q&A site, and all answers are expected to address the original question. As this is a site for advanced English users, we may presume the questioner is seeking an English expression.
    – choster
    Dec 9, 2014 at 7:07

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