How can we describe a person doing or communicating something without (really) knowing what he is doing or talking about? This could be either because of some indisposition like for example intoxication or person's knowledge or mental incompetency.

In colloquial Czech we have a phrase "být (úplně) mimo" which literally translated means: "to be (completely) out/outside/away". The extended meaning of the phrase is in the sense that the mind of the person is away from the real world or that his thoughts are moving in areas different to ones where they are supposed to be.

The Czech phrase is pejorative when it describes a person who obviously overestimated his capabilities. E.g. someone wrote an article about certain subject while knowing too little about it.

Is there something similar in colloquial or formal English?

  • I think you mean the person overestimated his capabilities.
    – Robusto
    Feb 21, 2015 at 13:53
  • @Robusto: Yes, this is a better title for the question. Thank you! Now I noticed underestimated / overestimated. Thanks :) Feb 21, 2015 at 13:56
  • 5
    There is the idiom "out of his depth".
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 21, 2015 at 14:03
  • 1
    Do you want to imply that normally they could do it but because of the circumstances (being intoxicated) they aren't able to or do you want something that means they are just flat-out incapable under the best of circumstances?
    – Jim
    Feb 21, 2015 at 16:53
  • 2
    Why not "clueless"? He is clueless about what he is doing/talking about.
    – ermanen
    Feb 21, 2015 at 18:41

10 Answers 10


An English idiom which has the derogatory, perjorative connotations you describe is "out of his depth".

Quoting from Dictionary.com:

out of (or beyond) one's depth:

  1. in water deeper than one's height or too deep for one's safety.
  2. beyond one's knowledge or capability

The image it conjures in my mind is a swimmer who has strayed too far from the shore, and is beginning to drown, his arms flailing in a very desperate, very visible, and in a sense pathetic, way.

  • 9
    And, similarly, "in over his head". Feb 21, 2015 at 16:44
  • @PeteBecker Oh, nice connection. I'd never seen it before.
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 21, 2015 at 16:45
  • I hadn't seen it either, until I read your answer. Feb 21, 2015 at 16:53

I most often hear this called winging it, meaning plunging into a conversation or task without adequate preparation or knowledge.

From Etymonline:

Verbal phrase wing it (1885) is said to be from a theatrical slang sense of an actor learning his lines in the wings before going onstage, or else not learning them at all and being fed by a prompter in the wings; but perhaps it is simply an image of a baby bird taking flight from the nest for the first time (the phrase is attested in this sense from 1875).

  • This phrase certainly covers some of the meanings of the Czech phrase. Thank you. --- As I understand it this phrase mostly describes improvisation instead of let's say several days of studying. I feel the phrase will not fit to a situation where somebody is lacking e.g two years of studying of some subject. Am I right? Feb 21, 2015 at 14:27
  • It can be used either way, but if you want to simply say someone is unprepared, or ill-prepared, or "not up to the task" then you should say that.
    – Robusto
    Feb 21, 2015 at 14:48

Why not lost; bewildered or confused; " he is lost"; " I'm lost—can you start over?"


It depends upon the context. If the comment being made is regarding something someone is saying, for example, giving an opinion on the speakers content; you might say something like the following:

"He's babbling" - much like a baby makes noises that have no meaning

"He's full of it" or "He's talking to hear himself speak" - meaning the speaker is not only ignorant, but also arrogant or wanting to be the center of attention. A similar term is "He doesn't know what he is saying."

"He's trippin'(tripping)" is a more modern slang that has multiple meanings and so is often qualified with an additional statement. It can pertain to either a person's speech or actions e.g "Man he's tripping. He don't know nothing about how to fix no computer problem." Has ties to things people might say or do when on an LSD or other hallucinogenic drug "trip"

For actions, the following may be appropriate:

Similar to "out of depth", it might be said that someone is "in over their head", meaning beyond their experience range.

For someone who has obviously overestimated his capabilities it can be said that they "bit off more than they can chew" similar to trying to fit something into your mouth that is far too large for it.

Another saying that also has multiple meanings or can be applied to multiple contexts is 'Wrote(writing) a check that his butt can't cash." As in committing to doing something, or attempting to do something for which they lack the capabilities. That could be either resources, or in the context that I think you are looking for, knowledge and/or experience.

Less derogatory terms (or they can be) for actions, usually applied more to professions are:

Layman - someone who is not an expert in a given field.

Tinkerer - usually applied more towards physical applications as in someone who doesn't know much about computers or devices, but likes to take them apart to try to figure them out.

A Hack - this one has many different nuances but can be a professional or non-professional who has limited education or experience in a subject matter. It can also mean someone who does a poor job on purpose, but it can definitely be used to describe someone who wrote an article about a subject while knowing too little about it. e.g. "Why would an uneducated hack like Huckleseed answer a language question?"


Your question title, and descriptions, don't seem to match up to a single phrase in English. Other people are answering as if you mean "someone who is normally capable, who has agreed to do a job but lacks the experience and knowledge to do the job properly - or who could do it if they prepared, but did not prepare and are now making it up as they go along, ad-hoc".

I think there's a chance you're asking something else:

"být (úplně) mimo" which literally translated means: "to be (completely) out/outside/away".

In British English, we say someone is "away with the faeries" (or fairies). It can mean they are daydreaming and not paying attention (staring out the window with a fixed gaze), or that they tend to say things completely disconnected from the world everyone else sees ("the cows in that field always stop talking when I go near") - as if they are living in a fantasy land. Not "insane", but "a bit delusional".

Similar phrases with similar usage: he/she "has their head in the clouds", "lives in a world of their own", "lives in cloud-cuckoo land". Someone who is intoxicated might be "out of it".

These fit your description "the mind of the person is away from the real world or that his thoughts are moving in areas different to ones where they are supposed to be", maybe also someone who is intoxicated, and someone who 'doesn't completely know what they are doing' all the time, but not a usually capable person who 'doesn't completely know what they are doing on a specific task'. But they don't fit someone being inadequately prepared, or incompetent.

They could apply to your use "someone wrote an article about certain subject while knowing too little about it" - if the article was totally nonsense.

e.g. "Did you see that article in the paper about how global warming will collapse the economy because hot weather will attract immigrants who won't buy tea and biscuits? The author is away with the faeries".

but not "the article about a business owner who bought out another company, but he did not have the accounting experience necessary to run a much bigger company and cash-flow problems forced the company out of business". This guy isn't daft, nor is he making it up as he goes along, he is out of his depth.


I'd go with "Out of their depth" but closer to the spirit of the original could be;

the lights are on, but nobody is home

This is an English colloquialisms, and generally used to describe someone who is dim witted, or vacant.


A very recent development is the phrase poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Dunning and Kruger published a research paper on metacognitive deficits titled "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". This won them an IgNobel in 2000. The concept, that low competence levels imply poor self-evaluation, has been greatly oversimplified, and the result is the indicated phrase.

  • This is well-known in programming, such that people who say they know something well very often don't know enough about the subject to know that they know next to nothing. Meanwhile, a true expert is more likely to say they are not an expert, because of how vast a subject is, like C or JavaScript or something. It's very important that people know about this.
    – L0j1k
    Feb 22, 2015 at 5:50

I often use the phrase "fish out of water" to describe a person who is doing something which they are not familiar with. This phrase carries no negative connotation, and indeed is often used in lieu of others in order to convey this meaning without insulting the subject.

For example, "I'm pretty good at baseball, but my brother is more of a fish out of water when it comes to the sport."


And if the the person is literally intoxicated or mentally incapacitated and not making any sense, you would say "He's out of his mind".


If he finds himself confused and unable to continue coherently, he is "at a loss for words", or "fumbling for words".

If he makes no sense, he could be called "incoherent".

If he lacked preparation, he could be described as "unprepared" or "not up to the task". If he wanders from the subject, he is "off track".

If he has only a shallow grasp of the subject, and his presentation is simplistic, he is an "amateur", and his presentation will be "amateurish" (or, he is a "lightweight")

If the presentation becomes a disaster, he "botched it" or "made a mess of it" or "screwed it up" (or f****ed it up) He probably "made a fool of himself" as well. The presentation might be called a "farce" or a "travesty".

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