The phrase "to break a butterfly on a wheel" is very evocative, but I can't bring myself to use it: I find the "wheel" too disturbing.

So: what are some good alternatives?

(For those who are unfamiliar with this expression, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines it as "to employ superabundant effort in the accomplishment of a small matter". [link])

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    I don't blame you: I find disturbing the very idea of harming a fellow creature, one of such delicate grace and sublime beauty. That the wheel was used as a medieval torture device adds sadistic insult to gratuitous injury. – tchrist Feb 9 '15 at 5:00
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    "to break a butterfly on a wheel" was used by Alexander Pope (around 1730) and it may be a bit dated today. – rogermue Feb 9 '15 at 12:03
  • @rogermue: Well, Pope also gave us "faint praise", and probably lots of other expressions that we wouldn't bat an eye at. (And, I mean, he also used plenty of normal words like the and of and lock.) But you're right -- I ended my question with an explanation of what the phrase meant, which I wouldn't have bothered to do if I had felt that this were an everyday expression that everyone understood today. – ruakh Feb 10 '15 at 5:55

Use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

to do something with more force than is necessary to achieve the result you want

When he sent ten men to arrest one small boy, he clearly used a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Better yet: Use a sledgehammer to swat a fly!


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If someone is heavy-handed, they are insensitive and use excessive force or authority when dealing with a problem.

In other words, I love the Chinese idiom with a similar meaning:

用高射炮打蚊子(literally: to shoot a mosquito with an anti-aircraft gun)

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    +1 for Shoot a mosquito with an anti-aircraft gun! Put that one at the top of your answer. – ScotM Feb 9 '15 at 4:57
  • There's also nuking the mosquito. – wchargin Feb 9 '15 at 23:03

Overkill is the phrase that comes to mind here. But if you're looking for a colorful animal metaphor, maybe "beat a dead mouse"?

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  • Thanks! Although "overkill" does seem to be attested as a verb, that use sounds very odd to me. In my own experience it is invariably a mass noun. (And I'm not specifically looking for an animal metaphor, no, though I'm not opposed to one!) – ruakh Feb 9 '15 at 7:51
  • @ruakh You didn't ask for a verb, but you can have one: "to be overkill" would be a direct substitute for your phrase. – Qsigma Feb 9 '15 at 9:59
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    Possibly you mean the common idiom to "flog a dead horse", which has a slightly different meaning: to continue an action after that action ceases to be useful. – blmoore Feb 9 '15 at 13:30
  • @Qsigma: Eh? "To be overkill" certainly is not a direct substitute. It has the right part of speech, but it takes the wrong subject. – ruakh Feb 9 '15 at 17:15
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    @blmoore - I meant beat a dead mouse as a counterpoint to flog a dead horse. The former indicates action that is no longer -necessary-, while the latter indicates action that is no longer -useful-. Seems different enough to me to justify a different phrase. – lonstar Feb 10 '15 at 20:13

There's a whole range of answers concocted in a veritable arms race:

That's like using a hammer to kill a ladybug
That's like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly
That's like using a pistol to kill a cockroach
That's like using a shotgun to kill a mosquito!
That's like using a bazooka to kill a flea.
That's like using a cannon to kill a mosquito
That's like using a nuclear bomb to kill a mosquito

Where the butterfly on the wheel goes in that list is unclear- maybe between the sledgehammer and the pistol.

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The figurative language surrounding this concept is generally pretty disturbing: to beat a dead horse, for example. The verb 'belabor' is nice, boring, alternative -- there is the expression 'to belabor the point.'

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In German it is common to say

"to shoot with cannons on sparrows" (germ.: "Mit Kanonen auf Spatzen schießen")

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