What is the proper English word for a scenario where a valid/lawful/best thing can not be established because other things are not at their best.

For example, you are unable to enforce food hygiene because people are poor, where obtaining food is hard whereas food hygiene is a far cry.

  • Very nice context. But I doubt a single word will suffice, perhaps asking for an idiom or a phrase will yield better answers. Just an idea.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 15, 2015 at 19:55
  • A game lost from the outset or a foregone conclusion, come to mind!
    – user66974
    Apr 15, 2015 at 20:02
  • self-defeating comes to mind, but I'm not sure how perfect it is.
    – Barmar
    Apr 15, 2015 at 20:32
  • I can't think of any sort of idiom that would be appropriate. There may be a Aesop fable or some such, but it's not a well-known one.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 15, 2015 at 22:39
  • Maybe rendered moot as in unpractical or academic because of missing prerequisites and socioeconomic realities; impracticable.
    – user98955
    Apr 17, 2015 at 23:11

12 Answers 12


My friend usually calls this exercise in futility.

The only idiom that comes to mind is

Sisyphean task
(Greek legend) a king in ancient Greece who offended Zeus and whose punishment was to roll a huge boulder to the top of a steep hill; each time the boulder neared the top it rolled back down and Sisyphus was forced to start again

Which is quite similar as it implies futility but also necessity to start the task over.


I would say

Fight a losing battle

- to try hard to do something when there is no chance that you will succeed

source: http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/fight+a+losing+battle


"You have won the battle but lost the war" is the expression that comes to mind for your scenerio. There is a small victory (by enforcing attendance) but then the war is ultimately lost by having students drop out entirely rather than complying with the new rule, despite its benefits.


Not to put the preservation of Boston’s “sacred sky line” on the same level as the enforcement of food hygiene (or vice versa), but the single-word adjective “quixotic” might describe these types of pursuits, especially when combined with the notion of a “lost cause”: “a quixotic lost cause” (Line 7).

In a sentence perhaps you could say that it’s “a quixotic pursuit of a[nother] lost cause.”

If "quixotic" makes the goal/pursuit seem too romantic or far-fetched, perhaps "noble" would work better: "The noble pursuit of a lost cause."


Two phrases comes to mind:

Academic - in this context, meaning so scholarly as to be unaware of the outside world. "Once the people were truly starving, the concept of food hygiene became purely academic."

Fool's errand - a fruitless undertaking. "Enforcing food hygiene was a fool's errand, the people were starving and ready to eat almost anything."


I dislike including multiple answers in one, but your question is a bit ambiguous, so:

Jumping through hoops means meeting requirements that are meaningless.
Pyrrhic victory means a small success that leads to a larger failure.
Catch 22 is an either/or situation with no winning scenario (either way you lose).
Fool's errand means a task with no hope of success.


Disservice - doing more harm than good.

Example: 'The teacher did a great disservice to students by loosening his rules.'

But this sounds too boring. In the Russian language there is an idiom,

'Bear's service'. According to Urban Dictionary it is used in English too.

Other synonyms for disservice are:

  • ill turn
  • ill service

In the U.S. military circles "F.U.B.A.R" = Fucked up beyond all reconnection. Up the creek with out a paddle: you got to a place you just need to ride out what happens. My/your ass is grass an here comes the lawn mower: being powerless over the edicts of others.


Your teacher's rule could be described as "counter-productive", or "ultimately unavailing".


This is similar to "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic", a reference to the famous shipwreck. This refers to focusing effort on fixing a detail while not addressing a much larger problem.


Herding cats -Wiki

An idiom that refers to a frustrating attempt to control or organize a class of entities which are uncontrollable or chaotic.

Extended explanation: What does it mean?

  • Stuck between a rock and a hard place


  • Stuck between the Devil and the deep, blue sea

This idiom describes a situation where there are options for dealing with a perceived problem, but all options seem impossible (or, in some cases, dangerous).

The idiom "catch 22" also describes a situation where attempts to solve the problem actually make the problem worse. This is somewhat similar to another idiom which speaks also to inaction, as, "Damned if I do and damned if I don't."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.