In Polish there's a phrase "podłożyć [komuś] świnię", literally "set up pig [under somebody]". It means performing an action that - while otherwise completely legal, seemingly neutral, and not apparently malicious, is extremely undesirable to somebody affected - and was performed for that very reason, to cause trouble to the affected.

It's related to "setting somebody up (to fail)", "giving them enough rope to hang themselves", "setting them a lose-lose scenario", "digging up dirt", etc, but with a special focus on the effect of a deliberate but seemingly arbitrary decision. Also, police "sting" operations sometimes happen to be this, especially if the target was originally reluctant to perform the "criminal activity".

Some examples:

  • in understaffed branch of company you reserve holidays for yourself for a time for when your (disliked) co-worker planned some trip to an event they eagerly awaited; they will not be given time off with the division short-staffed by your absence.
  • The disliked person has a court case with unrelated third party. You provide the third party with efficient court advice.
  • Follow a faulty order to the dot, making sure to give credit for the disastrous outcome where it's due. Possibly even (unofficially) suggest that course of action in the first place.
  • Your political opponent allegedly made a bad slip of bad judgment, did something legally ambiguous sometime in the past. Report that to authorities shortly before elections.

Are there idioms/phrases to describe this kind of action?

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    @rraallvv That reminds me of the phrase "Sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice."
    – ErikE
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 23:02
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    If I dislike a person so much as to sabotage their chance of being elected, aren't I benefitting from the knowledge that I caused his "disgrace" his "downfall"? There is a famous saying revenge is a dish best served cold which is what I would suspect is the "malefactor's" primary aim.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 23:27
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    A further distinction, @Mari-LouA, is that those look for a name for a person, and this question looks for the name of an action.
    – ErikE
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 1:50
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    It's just that questions giving the answer in their title seem to be tautologies: Q: "What is a phrase for plausibly deniable malicious intent" A: "There isn't one, call it plausibly deniable malice" is NOT a very interesting question and answer. Questions should display the knowledge that you had when you asked them, at least (again) partly so that other searchers will more likely find them by using other, perhaps more common, words to describe. Unless you strongly resist, I do plan to change the title of the question later to something that reflects this "not knowing the answer yet" aspect.
    – ErikE
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 23:26
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    The fact that there is no perfect English word or phrase for this behavior makes it all the harder for English-speakers to perceive.
    – Beta
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 0:14

13 Answers 13


To put a spoke in someone's wheel or just spoke his wheel is to materially damage a person's plans or progress. (Don't ask me why it's not spike or stick instead of spoke, there's debate about the origin of this seemingly strange phrase.)

put a spoke in somebody's wheel

to make it ​difficult for someone to ​achieve something they had ​planned to do:
His ​letter really put a spoke in ​our ​wheel.

source: Cambridge Dictionaries Online

But I don't think English has a set phrase with all the connotations you are looking for. It's possible you could come up with your own phrase that people would understand. Something like plausibly deniable malice or ostensibly innocent malignance.

plausible deniability

... circumstances where a denial of responsibilty or knowledge of wrongdoing can not be proved as true or untrue due to a lack of evidence proving the allegation. This term is often used in reference to situations where high ranking officials deny responsibilty for or knowledge of wrongdoing by lower ranking officials. In those situations officials can "plausibly deny" an allegation even though it may be true.

It also refers to any act that leaves little or no evidence of wrongdoing or abuse.

source: uslegal.com

malice n.

  1. desire to inflict injury, harm, or suffering on another, either because of a hostile impulse or out of deep-seated meanness:
    the malice and spite of a lifelong enemy.

source: dictionary.com

ostensible adj.

2 : being such in appearance : plausible rather than demonstrably true or real:
the ostensible purpose for the trip

source: Merriam-Webster

A related concept that may interest you is practicing strategic incompetence, which is intentional failure at tasks in order to relieve oneself of responsibility for them.

Another word that may be of use to you is Machiavellian, meaning (Merriam-Webster) suggesting the principles of conduct laid down by Machiavelli; specifically: marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith.

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    I guess that you are right that English has no such common phrase - and I believe an act of plausibly deniable malice is the most accurate description of the activity.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 23:07
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    Your "ostensibly innocent malignance." just rolls off the tongue. What does it mean? It's a paradox. It's a nonsensical nonce expression.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 23:21
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    @Mari-LouA Some day, if there's an "almost a duplicate" function on this site to close questions, then you can utilize that to mark the question such, but in the meantime, this question is obviously not a true duplicate as the answers are quite different. So your meddling isn't welcome and most certainly isn't constructive. In the case of "ostensibly innocent malignance", if you simply go look up the word ostensible you will find that it means "stated or appearing to be true, but not necessarily so." Thus, ostensibly innocent means "stating or appearing to be innocent".
    – ErikE
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 23:39
  • @Mari-LouA: the problem is in grouping, ostensibly (innocent malignance) is a paradox, but (ostensibly innocent) malignance isn't. That's why I prefer plausibly deniable malice - because here the wrong grouping plausibly (deniable malice) carries about the same meaning as (plausibly deniable) malice.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 6:43
  • @Mari-LouA I don't think "unprovable" hits the spot, because the situations mentioned by the OP wouldn't work if someone had full knowledge as might be revealed by a full investigation by authorities. Plausibly deniable is a much lower standard that is more easily met, due to situations where there is no full investigation possible.
    – ErikE
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 16:45

It sounds like a spite:

  • a malicious, usually petty desire to harm, annoy, or humiliate another person; malice.

  • malevolence by virtue of being malicious or spiteful or nasty.

The expression is out of spite :

  • with the desire to harm someone or something.
    • Jane told some evil gossip about Bill out of spite. That was not an accident! You did it out of spite.

The Free Dictionary

  • 2
    It misses the "innocent means" part though - while the spiteful action is traceable to the source, there is no way to place a blame or prove this was done out of spite.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 11:24
  • In that case it is just an unfortunate coincidence, but, in your second example, "would you provide the third party with legal advice" innocently? Also in the 4th example is hard to make it look 'an innocent act'.
    – user66974
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 11:29
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    Hi SF. Your examples simply don't have an "innocent" angle. In each of your four examples, there is nothing innocent at all - the person deliberately and specifically acted to "sneakily" hurt the other person.
    – Fattie
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 13:04
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    I'm not entirely sure there is an English idiom that accurately conveys what you mean, then. "Out of spite" is certainly inclusive of any of your examples; beyond that, it's just a matter of common sense on the spiting person to choose a course of action that allows them to pull it off while looking (arguably) innocent. I'll think on this today, and see if maybe I can recall some phrase that better encompasses what you're looking for, but for now I think "out of spite" is about as close as we get.
    – Doktor J
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 14:23
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    hi SF. In your examples TWO THROUGH FOUR, it is explicitly malicious, deliberate, conduct. Your example ONE can be read as "accidentally". It's not complex ... you can hurt someone either by AN ACCIDENT or DELIBERATELY It's just that simple. You must be looking for either BY ACCIDENT, or BY DELIBERATELY, or a phrase that covers both. There is only three choices. There is no murky middle ground.
    – Fattie
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 19:14


play a dirty trick on someone

play a trick on someone or play a prank on someone: to do a trick that affects someone. McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

pull a dirty trick on someone

pull a trick (also, pull a stunt) [on someone]: to deceive someone; to play a trick on someone. McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

screw someone over

: informal treat someone unfairly; cheat or swindle someone. OED

land [give] someone a low blow

low blow: an unfair blow McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions

For example, When my roommate moved out without a word of warning, leaving me to pay the entire rent, that was a low blow, or She wanted to win the argument, but bringing up his failed marriage was a low blow.

throw a [monkey] wrench in/into [the works]

: sabotage or frustrate a project or plans, as in The boss threw a monkey wrench into our plans when he said we'd have to work Saturday. This transfer of industrial sabotage—that is, throwing a tool inside machinery—to other subjects dates from the early 1900s.The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary


Consider the following idioms:

do the dirty on someone:

to ​behave unfairly towards someone, usually without ​their ​knowledge


do someone dirt:

to do ill to someone; to harm someone’s reputation.


do a dirty trick on someone:

dirty trick: an unkind or aggressive trick


In addition, the British idiom to queer somebody's pitch could work:

to spoil someone's chances of doing something
She queered my pitch by asking for promotion before I did.

For instance, you could use "queer the pitch" in your political opponent example.

  • The "queer the pitch" seems closest to the intended meaning.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 13:34
  • @SF Yes, I think it's close, in certain contexts. I can read Russian very well, and there's the same idiom in the Russian language, apparently with the same connotations. I don't think there's a perfect equivalent to "podlozhit svinyu" in English, but I do know it's not "spite" or "out of spite".
    – A.P.
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 19:22

Follow a faulty order to the dot, making sure to give credit for the disastrous outcome where it's due. Possibly even (unofficially) suggest that course of action in the first place.

This is referred to as "malicious compliance".



To undermine

Literally means to dig underneath; or more figuratively, to sabotage.


In sport there's "Gamesmanship", doing something what whilst not illegal or breaking the rules may still be a dubious way of gaining an advantage to either help you win or another not to. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamesmanship

Also have a look at, "against the spirit of the law." Something might be to the letter of the law whilst still achieving what the law set out to prohibit. For example if al law meant to stop people parking by fire hydrants read, "You cannot park a vehicle in font of a fire hydrant" a lawyer might then argue you'd parked not in front of the hydrant but beside it, thus being to the letter but not the spirit of the law.


Your context seems to be covering a wide range of situations. You could consider using "stab someone in the back"

To harm (someone) by treachery or betrayal of trust.

[American Heritage Dictionary]

to do harm to (someone), especially to a friend or to a person who is unsuspecting or in a defenseless position.


'back-stabbing" as a noun means:

harmful and unfair things that are said or done to hurt the reputation of someone


  • doesn't this ignore the "and was performed for that very reason, to cause trouble to the affected" part? To me, "Back-stabbing" seems emphasize a the betrayal act that would most likely be done in order to take advantage from the person being back-stabbed, and not out of sadism alone Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 14:01
  • @EduardoWada Yes, it means mostly "betrayal of trust", but I suggested it as it fits some context.
    – user140086
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 14:04

To set up

Literally means to arrange things. Can also mean "to arrange the circumstances" of someones failure. The element of plausible deniability is often implicit to the context.


I can't think of a common parlance equivalent, however, the most apt word to describe that from my understanding of your examples and the language is perfidy (from the latin words "Per Fidem", indicating betrayal of trust, confidence, or principle (literally means through faith (as in passing through) in its most basic form), as it covers:

  • the malicious intent
  • the effective betrayal of the subject or principle
  • has the association with an uncleanness of morality or purpose: the word itself carries negative connotations and meaning whilst alluding to potential obfuscation and deceit.

Also, police "sting" operations sometimes happen to be this, especially if the target was originally reluctant to perform the "criminal activity".


a law enforcement agent induces a person to commit a criminal offense that the person would have otherwise been unlikely to commit.[1] It is a conduct that is generally discouraged and thus, in many jurisdictions, it's a possible defense against criminal liability



When the malicious person is in a bad spot:

I'll bring you down with me


I'll take them down with me

In other words, they're going to retaliate against the person that they feel was responsible for their own downfall, even though it doesn't help them recover.

TVtropes has a page on it, though it's more about examples in fiction than examples of its usage in English.


There is one expression for this in gaming, called griefing.

A griefer is a player that tries his best to make the game as unpleasant as possible for other players without gaining anything for himself.


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