I am trying to translate this comically vulgar Hungarian phrase, often (but not exclusively) used in a political context. It means to make someone else carry out one's rash or risky ideas, usually for the person's own benefit. So, for instance, when the issue emerges of how US economic sanctions on Russia hurt the local economy or jeopardize local gas supplies, Hungarians may say something like "Uncle Sam has chosen to beat the nettle with someone else's penis/dick". It is also used as an interjection: "Don't beat it with mine...!", or euphemised. Can you think of any matching idiom or vague equivalent? Thanks in advance.

  • 2
    @Kris "shooting from someone else's shoulder"? A search shows it being used a few places, but not many so maybe it is a variant of something similar. It seems to be largely Indian English in use, so maybe a translation from another language used there. In any case, your mention there is the first I heard of it. – Jon Hanna Jan 16 '15 at 14:58
  • 25
    This often occurs as "más farkával veri a csalánt", i.e. he's beating the nettles with someone else's tail. Now, "tail" can be a euphemism for "penis" in both Hungarian and English, but on the other hand, a dog or a horse that falls into a patch of nettles will literally beat the plants with its tail... I wonder which version (faszával or farkával) occurs first. – Marthaª Jan 16 '15 at 17:04
  • 5
    The nearest I can think of what we might say in Britain is They have us doing their donkey work, or next time do your own donkey work. – WS2 Jan 16 '15 at 18:53
  • 6
    Just to clarify here, I'm assuming that "nettle" in this case is referring to plants such as the "stinging nettle" which have tiny hairs on them and produce a painful and persistent sting when touched with the bare skin. I can imagine that touching one with one's "Johnson" would be exceedingly unpleasant. (It's not clear why one would intentionally "beat" nettle.) – Hot Licks Jan 17 '15 at 1:58
  • 10
    There's a Russian proverb that, in essence, states "it's quite easy to sit with a bare ass on a hedgehog, if it's someone elses ass", which has a similar meaning. – Peteris Jan 19 '15 at 18:49

17 Answers 17

It lacks the comedy and the vulgarity of the original, but I think the phrase "writing checks on someone else's account" gets at the core of the idea you're trying to express. For instance

"Uncle Sam has chosen to write his checks on Hungary's account."

  • 3
    This is honestly the best answer, but I had to go through and upvote all answers but the top one since the top answer is such a horrible one. This is probably the most common idiom, but it is also inherently discoverable by its literal meaning. It's not as vulgar, admittedly, but the Hungarian phrase is so common it is used in euphemism, meaning vulgarity is not essential. – trlkly Jan 18 '15 at 22:38
  • 3
    @trlkly - That's what downvotes are for. – Bobson Jan 19 '15 at 20:28
  • 1
    @trlkly: 1. The Hungarian phrase isn't all that common. 2. I'm not entirely certain which came first, the vulgar version or the non-vulgar version. (Certainly, the non-vulgar version makes more literal sense.) – Marthaª Jan 20 '15 at 0:17
  • @Bobson Yes, but that provides no gradation between a bad answer and a horrible answer. Doing what I did effectively gave me the ability to make two downvotes, relatively speaking. And the rules say you can downvote or upvote for any reason you want. – trlkly Jan 21 '15 at 0:35
  • 2
    I've heard phrases like this but it was always used literally, as in, someone literally wants to or does spend someone else's money. – fredsbend Jan 21 '15 at 19:03

I'm not exactly sure of the context of the idiom you quote, but I take it to mean that you use someone else to do the morally questionable or particularly difficult deeds that you need done.

Dirty work is often used to express that some particular activity is morally questionable. To mimic your example, Uncle Sam has gotten someone else to do his dirty work. Sometimes, dirty work can be used to mean the very difficult work that is messy (sometimes literally, but figuratively could mean disorderly), but is necessary to accomplish some goal.

Bitch work or grunt work is a similar expression. It is often used to indicate the lowly work that servants would do. Things like cleaning the toilet, scrubbing the floor, etc. It does not particularly relate to your example, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

The answer suggesting "Cat's paw" reminds me of the word tool. The word tool is often used in slang terms to describe a person that is being used and doesn't even know it. See this related post. In your example, the "someone else" might be described as a tool. Often, you will see this word used to describe a single person, not typically a nation, society, or other group.

  • 12
    +1 for "dirty work" - really common, really versatile expression. e.g. "I can't believe the camp leader made me penis-beat the nettles outside his tent. I'm sick of doing his dirty work!". It's maybe more often used for immoral work than unpleasant work, but it works for both. I've never heard "bitch work" though, (UK) is it American? I'd be careful with it places it's not a common phrase: "bitch" has many meanings, and over here, "I'm not cleaning the toilet, that's bitch work" would sound more like sexism than snootiness. "Grunt work" would fit. – user568458 Jan 17 '15 at 14:48
  • @user568458 I didn't think of "grunt work." Yes, I'd say it's synonymous with "bitch work". I'm American and have heard "bitch work" enough to consider it a common expression. It was in a popular American movie. In general, I'd say to not use the word "bitch" in any phrase in mixed company. – fredsbend Jan 18 '15 at 1:32
  • @user568458 Although this expression is common in the US I don't think it's free of sexist overtones. – Casey Jan 19 '15 at 21:13
  • 3
    I think that @ermanen's answer "Cat's paw" is a more accurate answer than this one - but "getting someone else to do you dirty work" is a much more common and universally understood phrase than "cat's paw". – GMA Jan 20 '15 at 11:10
  • 1
    My only issue with this answer is that I don't see the questioner's example as being about getting someone else to do something, but rather causing someone else to suffer the consequences of one's own actions. I think "dirty work" is related, but not directly applicable here. – Sasha Vodnik Jan 22 '15 at 2:46

There is an idiomatic phrase that conveys this idea and has the metaphoric similarity:

  • to make a cat's paw of someone

  • or use someone as a cat's paw

It is more commonly used as just cat's paw in the relevant context. (especially political contexts)

And here is a related phrase but from the viewpoint of the cat's paw:

  • pull someone's chestnuts out of the fire

enter image description here
The Monkey and the Cat by Abraham Hondius

Cat's paw and related phrases are derived from the fable The Monkey and the Cat adapted by La Fontaine.

There are popular idioms derived from it in both English and French with the general meaning of being the dupe of another (e.g., a cat's-paw). Usage of these and reference to the fable have been particularly employed in (although not limited to) political contexts.

The Monkey and the Cat / Wikipedia

Cat's paw is a person used by another as a dupe or tool and if you make a cat's paw of someone or if you use someone as a cat's paw, you use this person for your selfish purposes (which implies dirty and risky jobs depending on the context). If you pull someone's chestnuts out of fire, you do the dirty work for someone else.

cat's paw

You always try to make a cat's paw of me, but I refuse to do any more of your work.

This term alludes to a very old tale about a monkey that persuades a cat to pull chestnuts out of the fire so as to avoid burning its own paws. The story dates from the 16th century and versions of it (some with a dog) exist in many languages. [TFD]


pull someone's chestnuts out of the fire

to do a dangerous, hard, or unpleasant thing for someone else [Collins]

Succeed in a hazardous undertaking for someone else’s benefit. [OD]

Note: The main reason I gave this answer was to match the metaphoric imagery and usage in political context. Of course there are more common idioms that convey the same idea in general but Hungarian language can have too. The question is not simply asking any idiom that conveys "using someone" and this amazing Hungarian metaphor makes it unique.


Example usages from news articles and reviews:

After moving on from serving as Uncle Sam’s cat’s paw, he found himself in Abu Dhabi in 2011, where he began working with the United Arab Emirates to build, in the words of The New York Times, an 800-man “secret American-led mercenary army,”...

Erik Prince: America’s Harbinger Of Death, And Democracy?


And as if we do not have our hands full in the Middle East, the US military looks west to the South China Sea for relevance, i.e., future conflicts. If that fails, our aging cold war apparatchiks, using NATO cat's paw, are renewing a cold war with Russia.

American Journey From Terror to Peace, 9/11 to 11/11


Historically, Korea has always been a cat’s-paw in the world’s power games among China, Japan, and a Johnny-come-lately Uncle Sam in Asia Pacific region. And Koreans used to call the Korean Peninsula, ‘a shrimp whose back gets broken in the fight between Whales.’

An Idiot’s Guide to a “State of War” in the Korean Peninsula


An example usage from the book "The Pacific War Papers" By Donald M. Goldstein (2004):

The Government authorities, too, seem to be trying to make a cat's paw of other countries as much as possible and, if unavoidable, to appear on the final scene to win victory. Consequently they assume the attitude of not minding the continuation of war for five to ten years. Though they are supporting the Soviet Union at present, it is only to make a cat's paw of her, and not because they are friendly to Communist Russia.

  • 25
    Also it's not in very common usage, at least not in any of the parts of the US I've lived in. – fluffy Jan 17 '15 at 19:07
  • 24
    Sure, but what use is an idiom if nobody understands what it is? I have to admit if someone had used that phrase to me I'd have to look it up or ask for a clarification. – fluffy Jan 17 '15 at 21:00
  • 4
    Interestingly, this is supported by Pokémon. The move Assist is named "Neko no Te" in Japanese, literally "Cat's Paw", and consists of having an ally attack in the user's place. – Niet the Dark Absol Jan 20 '15 at 16:01
  • 4
    FWIW, "Cat's Paw" isn't that uncommon. It's also the nickname of a common tool ( small nail puller ). I'd rank 'cat's paw' as a term that marks a certain level of intellect, but I'd expect anybody interested in politics to understand it. (i.e. Talking Heads on the Sunday Morning shows ). – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Jan 20 '15 at 19:52
  • 3
    Also FWIW, English is my third language but I was aware of the meaning of both suggestions so I doubt these are so uncommon that we should discourage their use. – Lilienthal Jan 21 '15 at 9:08

What about "Throw under the bus"?

From wikipedia:

To throw (someone) under the bus is an idiomatic phrase in American English meaning to sacrifice a friend or ally for selfish reasons.

In your examples, it might work like:

Uncle Sam has thrown us under the bus.

or

Don't throw me under the bus!

  • 19
    I think this is usually used for "betraying/selling out". And sometimes sacrificing someone as mentioned in the definition, which is too strong. I don't think it conveys "using someone" or maybe this meaning is less common. – ermanen Jan 16 '15 at 21:29
  • 1
    Hungary is supposed to be a US ally. Therefore it is a kind of sacrifice or betrayal. I think like most translations it is not quite the same, but it does at first glance convey the idea. – njahnke Jan 17 '15 at 16:18
  • when my brother started his current job, his coworkers told him his boss was a "bus chucker" to explain the opening he was filling. – hildred Jan 19 '15 at 7:08
  • 3
    When I have heard this phrase, it has always meant blaming something on (someone): using (someone) as a scapegoat. – LarsH Jan 19 '15 at 22:21
  • I'll admit it's a bit off. The original phrase seems to be acknowledging an obvious plan to throw someone under the bus if things go south, rather than the actual bus-throwing action. – Mike Gossmann Jan 20 '15 at 16:15

The closest I can think if is "guinea pig" - after a lab animal used as test subjects for risky research.

In a more military vein you could use cannon fodder - troops used to distract the cannons while your good troops move elsewhere, or even a forlorn hope - troops that are first to charge a fort to occupy the defenders while the other troops approach.

None has the colorful imagery of the original, though.

  • Guinea Pig sounds like the most closest interpretation of the idiom, which is to have someone else (ally or not) used as cannon fodder for you. – yuritsuki Jan 16 '15 at 23:42
  • 2
    But Guinea Pig doesn't always carry the connotation of risky research (or cannon fodder) - merely research of any stripe. I don't think it's a good fit. – peterG Jan 17 '15 at 20:17
  • 1
    I think guinea pig is inappropriate because they are not seen as actors made to do a dirty task, they are the objects of the dirty tasks, an even lower state than cannon fodder or nettle beater. – Taryn Jan 19 '15 at 19:20
  • 1
    Guinea pig isn't an exact match, but it is close-ish - it doesn't necessarily mean risky research, but it does mean research where you probably don't know the risk, because you have basically no idea what's going to happen until you try it. (Which isn't quite the same as the idiom in the OP, where they're pretty sure they do know what the risk is, and it's bad.) – neminem Jan 19 '15 at 19:35

I prefer the term "cannon fodder". While it's not necessarily an idiom, its meaning is to convey you using an ally or person to engage them in risky or dangerous acts, such as whacking a nettlebush with your dick.

From Wikipedia:

Cannon fodder is an informal, derogatory term for combatants who are regarded or treated as expendable in the face of enemy fire.

  • 2
    I think this one is the closest one semantically to the original. Though I'm not sure which is worse - application of ones groin to the nettles or the likelihood of death. – Wayne Werner Jan 20 '15 at 18:56
  • 1
    I've been stung by nettles on my hands and that's bad enough. I'm very interested in not having my dick stung. Then again I expect that's hardly uncommon. – Wayne Werner Jan 20 '15 at 19:56

I don't think there's an exact idiom, but these may be close:

Pass the buck

When someone "passes the buck", they are passing on responsibility to someone else. For example, "John didn't want to take responsibility for the failed project, so he passed the buck and blamed it on his manager."

Short end of the stick

When someone participates in a deal, bargain, or situation, the person who gets the "short end of the stick" comes off worse. In this case, you might say "Hungarians are getting the short end of the stick on these US economic sanctions."

In harm's way

Liable to get hurt. For example, you might say "The US in putting Hungary in harm's way over these economic sanctions" meaning the Hungary now is in danger of getting hurt.

Generally, this directly implies physical hurt (like war), so you might specify "Hungary's economy" to avoid this connotation.

Do someone wrong

To do someone wrong is to do something that injures are harms someone, often because of negligence or stupidity. Often implies unfaithfulness. For example, "John did me wrong when he slept with Kate, and now we're going to get a divorce."

Here, you might say "Uncle Sam did Hungarians wrong when he enforced economic sanctions against Russia."

  • 1
    I would say "short end of the stick" would be the equivalent in the example provided by OP: The US has made sure some else got the short end of stick with the sanctions on Russia or Europe got the short end of the stick with the US sanctions on Russia – thorkia Jan 16 '15 at 20:42
  • I always assumed "short end" was a euphemism for something ruder; phrases.org.uk/meanings/end-of-the-stick.html – Richard Jan 17 '15 at 17:35

I've heard the term "using someone else's money" as a term for taking advantage of an opportunity without personally running the risk involved. I have to say, though, that I like the Hungarian term better.

  • Good one, well done! – Sz. Apr 9 '16 at 12:32

A very close mid-western US equivalent--- not common but most people would get it immediately--- would be "getting someone else to piss on the fence." We have electric fencing all over out here (Missouri) and urinating on one... well. Much of the region is long stretches of road and short on amenities. If you really have to go by the side of the road, there is going to be a fence and it may or may not be electric. If you let the other guy piss first, you know whether the fence is live or not.

  • Wow, +1, an excellent match! :) Even without the electric aspect, it may work quite well, having roughly the same connotations! – Sz. Apr 9 '16 at 12:35

I apologize in advance for the vulgarity, but there is an English phrase that seems vaguely similar:

"I wouldn't [have sex with] her with XYZ's dick" where XYZ is a third person

  • 15
    You're answering a question which has "penis" in its title. I hardly think it's necessary to apologize for vulgarity, or to censor your answer. – Marthaª Jan 17 '15 at 0:37
  • This is the appropriately vulgar idiom in english. My favorite phrasing is: "I wouldn't fuck her with yours!" – alfwatt Jan 17 '15 at 3:32
  • 10
    Nice vulgarity, but somewhat different meaning. It's closer to "I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole" than "I won't do your dirty work for you". – user568458 Jan 17 '15 at 14:51
  • 4
    Perhaps the imagery is similar but I don't see how you could use this one in any of the contexts the OP mentioned. – Casey Jan 19 '15 at 17:34
  • 1
    Also as "I wouldn't touch them with yours". – A E Jan 19 '15 at 19:35

It's not quite as comically graphic, but I think this captures the spirit of the phrase:

"Let's you and him fight."

  • 1
    Welcome to ELU.SE. You need to explain how this matches the expression in the question. – Andrew Leach Jan 17 '15 at 22:25
  • Basically it's another way of having someone else to your dirty work for you. – Kiswick Von Oskenfleiger Jan 19 '15 at 1:19

Someone who asks others to fight a war (e.g. a politician advocating an invasion), but has never fought themselves, and has no intention of doing so, is called a chickenhawk.

This may be a little more specific than the Hungarian idiom, but it's the same concept (asking others to "carry out one's rash or risky ideas, usually for the person's own benefit").

If you are using someone else to test the danger of a situation before you go into it, you are using that person as a "canary in a coal mine", which comes from the old practice of using a bird to test for poisonous gas in a mine shaft.

  • 1
    Using a person as a canary in a coal mine would be a specific example of what they're asking for, but it is a specific example, not the answer itself. – neminem Jan 19 '15 at 19:36
  • Unfortunately, this one clearly emphasizes the act of probing for some danger, which is something the original phrase has nothing to do with (telling it as a Hungarian). – Sz. Apr 9 '16 at 12:42

I think the original phrase, translated directly as the OP did, conveys the idea perfectly without the need for a "Original English" idiom. Two hundred years down the line there may be a forum of people wondering what the origin of the English idiom "Beating the nettle with someone else's penis" is.

Language is a dynamic, live thing, and as the speakers of different languages interact they enrich each other.

  • Hehe, good point! :) – Sz. Apr 9 '16 at 12:36

Another way of saying. "I'll lead the way behind you"

The term "balls in the wringer" is an english idiom that would be similar in meaning.

  • 2
    I think you mean wringer? – Nate Eldredge Jan 17 '15 at 21:59
  • 12
    Yes. Ringers are for dongs. – Jim Reynolds Jan 18 '15 at 2:21
  • How does this have a similar meaning? The OP's phrase is about getting someone else to do your dirty work. "balls in the wringer" is just a difficult situation, completely devoid of the rest of the meaning of the OP's phrase... – GreenAsJade Feb 22 '16 at 11:26

I google®ed "useful idiots," a phrase which was widely attributed to Lenin. The Wikipedia® article on the phrase, in so many words, stated that, among his works, the phrase could not be found. Not wanting to go away empty-handed, I abstracted the following from the article:

"In the Russian language, the equivalent term 'useful fools' (полезные дураки, tr. polezniye duraki) was in use at least in 1941."

The sense that I gleaned from the article was that the phrase is mostly used to denote advocacy or verbal defense.

protected by tchrist Feb 22 '15 at 0:19

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.