59

There is proverb in Ukrainian, "They danced and danced, but didn't take a bow" (Танцювали, танцювали, та не вклонилися).

It is used to point out that someone has put a significant amount of time and effort into performing or creating something (which is emphasized by repetition of the dance in the original), but compromised their work at the stage of representation or polishing the final result.

For example, it can be applied to these situations:

  • The software was released after years of development to provide great performance and stability, but its interface is user-unfriendly and designed poorly
  • He wrote a brilliant essay, but didn't bother to spellcheck it, ruining all the good impression of his work
  • Bob cooked a fancy meal for his date, but served it on disposable plates, because he was too lazy to do the dishes afterwards

What would be an English proverb or idiom to express the same context?

The expressions with a similar, but not quite satisfying connotation I've found so far:

spoil the ship for a hap'orth of tar

being about a lack of a small amount of effort ruining something big or important, it doesn't cover "final step" part

A drop of poison infects the whole tun of wine

and it's analogues are mainly about a little amount of detrimental thing spoiling something good

Good idea, bad implementation

suggests that the whole actual work was flawed, when in our case realization can be good at major stages

  • 1
    @chasly from UK It is indeed used in the end, as a comment to the person's performance you are critical about. "- What do you think about new health care program?" "- It's good on paper, yet isn't inaccessible for 99% of people because of bureaucracy obstacles. Goverment danced, but didn't take a bow" – Aeternia Oct 27 '15 at 19:05
  • 1
    @ago I don't think I will be wrong to say the usage of it is ironic and more or less mocking. It's a criticizing expression. – Aeternia Oct 27 '15 at 19:39
  • 1
    @Graffito Thank you for the contribution; despite of it doesn't fit the original question, it can be useful for a close, but different shade of situation – Aeternia Oct 27 '15 at 20:43
  • 3
    "spoil the ship for a hap'orth of tar" I think would be recognized in British English only, and even then it's pretty obscure. Arguably its tone is specifically Northern British English, and well on its way to being obsolete even there (we don't have half pennies -- hap'orths -- any more). The thing is, it actually has the meaning that you're looking for, if I understand you correctly. – Ewan Mellor Oct 28 '15 at 8:14
  • 2
    I've never heard this particular turn of phrase in any language that I use regularly, but it is instantly understandable and quite a pleasant expression. This may not be in common use in English but I will certainly use this phrase myself in English somewhere someday -- I wouldn't even want to search for an alternative worn-out phrase that would merely bounce off a reader or listener. Use it as-is. – zxq9 Nov 1 '15 at 12:12

11 Answers 11

54

There is a phrase that has been adopted from gymnastics stick the landing, meaning to hold perfect form in the final jump or dismount.

The term has been adopted into broader usage

Execute flawlessly from the beginning through the end. Follow through. All phases of the sales cycle require great attention to detail but to be successful, we must "stick the landing" to close the deal.

(The Urban Dictionary)

The question is about the antithesis. You could say

He gave quite a performance, but ultimately failed to stick the landing.


Or you could turn around a well known aphorism and say

He snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

The original, is attributed to US Congressional Representative James Seddon of Virginia for claiming that a regiment in the Mexican-American war had "snatched victory from the jaws of defeat."

  • 2
    I didn't know stick the landing until now. In context, I'd have probably assumed it referred to the "panache" of a pilot landing using his joystick rather than on autopilot. But I stuck it in this NGram, from which I see I'm slipping well behind with these idiomatic usages. – FumbleFingers Oct 27 '15 at 22:40
  • I'd like to clarify, has failing to stick the landing dramatic context? For me, as non-native speaker, it sounds like a drastic failure keeping in mind both gymnastics and piloting images. – Aeternia Oct 28 '15 at 2:57
  • 3
    I think I've heard "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" more often than the original version :P. – Tikhon Jelvis Oct 28 '15 at 7:11
  • 6
    @Aeternia Failing to stick the landing in gymnastics would generally be used mostly when there was a very good performance, but on the last flip or dismount from bars or the horse, the gymnast did not land solidly on her feet, but bounced or took an extra step, a light stumble in form that detracts from a near perfect score. – bib Oct 28 '15 at 12:38
  • 1
    @Erik Kowal: I absolutely agree that related words/expressions and meanings (particularly, non-literal idiomatic usages) can influence each other. You can tell by the squealing that things have obviously gone seriously "wrong" for a stuck pig, and "I'm stuck!" can mean "I can't do this right", for example. Sticking and being stuck have lots of different associations with bad things, and the various distinct usages do tend to reinforce each other more than conventional "etymology" would always suggest. – FumbleFingers Nov 4 '15 at 12:48
67

They fell at the last hurdle1 would be appropriate if that final shortcoming meant the results were completely worthless. In other contexts, Close, but no cigar!2 might be better.


EDIT: Since no-one else seems to have mentioned it, there's also fail at the last hurdle, with an estimated 114 instances in print (vs 410 for fall at the last hurdle, 264 for fall at the final hurdle).

1 yourdictionary

2 thefreedictionary

  • Quite similar: "they missed the last step". – Graffito Oct 27 '15 at 19:44
  • 2
    One can't say Bob's food was worthless, it's just his serving sucked. – Aeternia Oct 27 '15 at 20:49
  • @Aeternia: That might depend on what exactly Bob served. I'm sure this average Joe can't be the only one who's ever come out with "What? No cherry on top?" even though the serving itself was faultless. – FumbleFingers Oct 27 '15 at 21:01
  • 2
    I've never heard of "fell at the last hurdle" and "Close, but no cigar" means you missed the mark by a bit. I think the cigar idiom fails to capture the idea of missing the final step. – C dawg Oct 27 '15 at 22:11
  • 2
    I don't think cigar is that unfamiliar for British English - I'm fully aware of it and use it occasionally. – Matt Allwood Oct 28 '15 at 13:45
20

You could paraphrase T S Eliot’s well-known final line from 'The Hollow Men' with something like: “[They/He/She/It/What] started with a bang, {but} ended with a whimper."

(example of usage from ‘Stick with It: How to Overcome the Obstacles that Keep You from Following ...’ via Google Books)

Or for a less literary option, you could borrow a phrase from “The King of Sports” (perhaps better known as "The Sport of Kings"): “They/She/He/It started strong/set the pace, but faded in the {home} stretch.”

(example of usage from ‘The First War on Terrorism: Counter-terrorism Policy during the Reagan …’ via Google Books)

11

Three from baseball:

Dropped the ball.

Meaning: A last-minute failure. See the compilation of examples and senses given at The Free Dictionary for specific uses.

He (or they) struck out swinging.

Meaning: Failed while giving it his (or their) best effort.

A swing and a miss.

Meaning: Said when the batter swings at the pitch but misses it. The effort put into the swing can be intensified by saying "he swung for the fences, but missed the ball".


Using "drop the ball", "failed to take the bow" and "overstayed the curtain call" (as well as fixing some idioms) in the examples given in the original question:

  • Software was released after years of development to provide great performance and stability, but the interface developers dropped the ball | failed to take the bow | overstayed the curtain call by making the interface user-unfriendly and otherwise poorly designed.
  • He wrote a brilliant essay, but dropped the ball | failed to take the bow | overstayed the curtain call by not bothering to spellcheck it, ruining all his good work.
  • Bob cooked a fancy meal for his date, but dropped the ball | failed to take the bow | overstayed the curtain call by serving it on disposable plates because he was too lazy to do the dishes afterwards.

Editorializing a bit, here at EL&U three types of evidence are considered support for claims made in questions and answers. Those three types, attestation from personal experience, general reference citations, and less-general reference citations, correspond respectively to the three classes of witness noted in a common mid-1800s idiom: liars, damded liars, and experts. That idiom was later paraphrased in a related idiom concerning statistics ("there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics"), commonly attributed to Disreali--by Mark Twain, among others--but not found in Disreali's writings. The false attribution of the 'three types of lies' phrase thus testifies to the accuracy of the original concerning the classes of witnesses.

I digress to this point: a Google Ngram comparing frequency of occurrence of the phrases 'Close but no cigar', 'fell at the last hurdle', and 'stuck the landing' (an Ngram linked in the comments on another answer given for this question), as well as an Ngram comparing those phrases along with the additional phrase 'dropped the ball', are both typical examples of the second and third classes of supporting 'evidence' provided in questions and answers at EL&U.

For my part, I example the first class of supporting 'evidence' by attesting from my personal experience that not only is 'dropped the ball' a much more common idiom than other, similar sports-related idioms, it is also a much closer match in meaning to the Ukranian proverb as I understand it, than other, similar English idioms.


Having dabbled in semi-professional thespianism as a youth (viz. "1928 Daily Express 79, Oct. 9, He still wraps round him..the rags of a tattered toga of Thespianism"), my first impulse in seeking an English idiom corresponding to the Ukranian proverb concerning stage dancing was to look to the theater. British and American stage productions, after all, customarily follow the same convention that underlies the Ukranian proverb: after a successful performance, the performers are drawn back on stage by applause, where they bow to acknowledge and respect the audience's praise. This is known idiomatically in English as 'taking a bow'.

Thus, the Ukranian proverb's corresponding niche in English idiom is occupied by not one idiom, but two: the first should be an idiom expressing the extent of the effort put into a performance, the second is the mutual idiom deriving from theatrical custom, 'taking a bow'.

Because verbal prejudice denigrates what is called "mixing metaphors", and because the second idiom, common to both Ukranian and English, is drawn from stage production customs, the first idiom should also be drawn from that domain. The easy target for this requirement, and possibly also the best, would be

They danced their hearts out, but didn't take the bow.

A spin on this idea, which perhaps more closely aligns with the sense of the Ukranian proverb, draws on the custom of the 'curtain call'. Having performed and been returned to the stage by a tempest of applause, the performers are best advised to avoid staying too long, in order to not spoil or detract from the effect of the performance. So, a portmanteau idiom that expresses this idea is

They danced their hearts out, but overstayed the curtain call.

This last idiom will perhaps not be as readily or widely comprehended as the first portmanteau idiom, because 'taking a bow' is more generally understood than the idea of overstaying the 'curtain call'. Nonetheless, overstaying the curtain call after a strong or at least heartfelt performance may more closely align with the sense of the Ukranian proverb.

Just as dance, in many European countries, occupies a more prominent, more central niche in the culture than it does in America or England, so sports--another type of performance--occupies a more prominent cultural niche in America and England. Hence the almost exclusively sports-related idioms given in the answers to this question.

Nonetheless, it seems true from my experience that not only would "they danced their hearts out, but didn't take the bow" be immediately understandable to many English-speakers, it would also convey more clearly and completely the nuances of the Ukranian proverb.

In conclusion, I note that neither the translated Ukranian proverb nor the equivalent English stage portmanteau idioms I have offered will, strictly speaking, work well in the English sentence examples given in the original question. For those examples from the question, either the sports metaphor 'dropped the ball' or an abridgement of one or the other of my portmanteau idioms, that is, 'failed to take the bow' or 'overstayed the curtain call', do work well, being more compact and concise than either the Ukranian proverb or the English equivalents. Of the more concise expressions, 'overstayed the curtain call' is certain to be least widely understood.

  • 3
    Of all the options available right now, I think "dropped the ball" best conveys the sense of a near-success ruined by a last-minute mistake. – Gaurav Oct 28 '15 at 5:39
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA There's an example here but it doesn't specifically relate to something at the end of some event, but rather at any point during. I've heard it used many times during a work project for example, but in the sense that the 'dropping' can be recovered later in the project. – Robin Williams Oct 28 '15 at 9:30
  • @RobinWilliams Well, if JEL could post a link of the baseball meaning, it would lend greater support to his answer. I don't have a problem with its metaphorical meaning, I'm being polemic over the use of Ngrams, a tool which I frequently use myself, but I know its pitfalls all too well. – Mari-Lou A Oct 28 '15 at 9:37
  • 1
    Thanks for expressing so well the importance&validity of personal experience&insight & +1 for the cool idea of using the spot-on expression “They danced their hearts out” w/something dance related. One tiny point: even the “but didn’t take a bow” in the Russian idiom is slightly ambiguous to me (not bow out of choice or from the lack of bow-inspiring applause) & I think adding “get to”:“..hearts out, yet/but didn’t get to take a bow” would remove this slight ambiguity I see in the Russian idiom & in your good answer.(Or w/curtain call maybe; “...out, yet/but failed to get a curtain call.”) – Papa Poule Oct 28 '15 at 22:12
  • 1
    @PapaPoule, thanks. By a happy coincidence, I had upticked your answer yesterday because I felt "faded in the [home] stretch" was better than any phrase offered in the high scoring answers. As for "the importance etc.", thanks for reminding me of that point; I'd lost sight of it due to my delight about having called myself a liar (not that I am one, except through ignorance, misfortune, or necessity). I don't know about "get to". I resolved that ambiguity with a slightly harsher interpretation of the proverb's force re the performers...maybe just "get", and not for the "overstayed" version. – JEL Oct 29 '15 at 3:57
5

You could say that they failed to dot the i's and cross the t's.

Wiktionary defines this as "To take care of every detail, even minor ones; To be meticulous or thorough."

Cambridge online dictionary has a definition that emphasises the final steps aspects of the idiom.

3

"Close, but no cigar!"

I bet that's a Groucho Marx line; can't go wrong with Groucho.

  • 4
    This might be a useful answer; but rather than guess at its origin, it would be much more authoritative if you could show a little research and evidence for your suggestion. It took me ten seconds to find a source suggesting that it first appeared in a 1935 film script, which had no connection with Mr Marx. – JHCL Oct 29 '15 at 15:44
2

nothing to show for it

"He worked long and hard on a brilliant essay, but neglected spellcheck and finding paper to print it on, so he's got nothing to show for it."

"He worked tirelessly on a wonderful meal, but he turned off his date by serving it on paper plates in his unkempt kitchen, so he's got nothing to show for it."

Dictionary references:

have something/nothing to show for sth - If you have something/nothing to show for ​your ​work or ​effort, you have/have not ​won any ​advantage from it

have to show for - Be able to exhibit as a result of one's work or expenditure. For example, I've been working all day and I have absolutely nothing to show for it, or He has some very fine paintings to show for the vast amount of money he's spent. This idiom was first recorded in 1727.

This doesn't specifically indicate "falling at the last hurdle" or "snatching the defeat from the jaws of victory" as suggested by other answers. It does not imply that success was assured until some fatal misstep was taken at this very end. It simply says, "I made substantial efforts, but... I've nothing to show for it." It amounted to nothing. It was not gainful. It was all for naught.

I tend to use it for incompletion more so than shooting yourself in the foot.

  • Two downvotes and no explanation as to why this answer isn't useful. – stevesliva Oct 31 '15 at 0:23
  • Nothing to show for it implies that the entire effort was completely wasted, a total loss, not just that the product was less than it could have been. – barbecue Oct 31 '15 at 0:42
  • @barbecue not really. Doesn't mean a total waste, just that so far it's not gainful. I don't interpret it as permanent judgement, but I can see how it might seem to be. – stevesliva Oct 31 '15 at 0:57
  • I see what you mean, but things like "all for naught" or "amounted to nothing" definitely imply finality. Also, having nothing to show doesn't necessarily mean the person failed to complete their effort, it could just mean they had bad luck. "He spent two years building the solid oak furniture for his family, but it was all for naught, because a fire destroyed his workshop." – barbecue Oct 31 '15 at 1:12
  • @barbecue, yes. My own words, but the focus was on the relevance to the original question and whether this is a useful idiom in that context. Even if people feel this phrase is a stronger indictment of the failure than "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory"-- and it's not-- it's still a useful phrase. Anyways, thanks for the comments. – stevesliva Oct 31 '15 at 3:09
2

I use (and prefer) 'He managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!'

0

Also inspired from sports/games:

Messed up the endgame

Dropped the ball on the try line

  • Welcome to ELU. Good answer. Please note that it is mandatory to attach any support/evidence/dictionary links to back up your claims. Please review our help center (english.stackexchange.com/help) to get additional information – Jony Agarwal Oct 30 '15 at 10:27
0

From the game of Golf: "Drive for show. Putt for dough." The actions until the end of the hole may look impressive, get more attention, and appear to put you in a good position, but in order to seal the win you must excel at the activities at the end. Perhaps the biggest difference from the original is there is an implication with this one that the "drive" isn't necessary for the win. If you play golf once you'd know that isn't fact so perhaps the implication is a result of brevity in the expression.

  • Shouldn't "dought" be "dough"? I doubt it is relevant to the OP's question though as it doesn't indicate "failure" or "unsatisfactory results". – user140086 Oct 31 '15 at 12:47
-1

[be in the] right church, [but the] wrong pew` A Dictionary of Anglo-American Proverbs & Proverbial Phrases

An idea is nearly right, but still off target; you're in the right place but not specifically Collins Dictionary

Most of the Bushisms come as a result of a “right church, wrong pew” kind of statement. He has researched and prepared a great response and it is filed neatly in his head; unfortunately, he put it in the wrong drawer. I Can Read You Like a Book

protected by tchrist Oct 31 '15 at 12:35

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.