14

I'm wondering if there's a word or phrase to describe an action or activity which turns out to be pointless - let me explain further with an example;

Recently I was organising the garage and had lots of bits of wood lying around which I needed to store properly, so I made some shelving with the wood. In so doing, I realised I had used up all the wood which I needed to store - so the shelving I had created was sort of redundant and unnecessary. However, had I not have built the shelving I would still have lots of bits of wood lying about the place which would need storing.

I wondered if there is a word, phrase or expression to describe this sort of futile paradoxical activity?

Many Thanks!

  • 1
    I think redundant explains it fine. – 123 Nov 27 '15 at 16:18
  • 3
    It was not futile, it just solved your problem in a different manner than you thought it would. – Marc van Leeuwen Nov 27 '15 at 16:56
  • @123 Redundant doesn't mean that it become pointless, redundant implies it was unnecessary the whole time. – SuperBiasedMan Nov 27 '15 at 17:45
  • 1
    Dammed if you do... – Mazura Nov 27 '15 at 17:48
  • I think in Britain it is one of the variants of Sod's Law. – WS2 Nov 27 '15 at 19:06

14 Answers 14

19

By using the wood, you have obviated the need to store it.

Building a container to store the material you'd use to build the container is a self-obviating action.


obviate ˈɒbvɪeɪt/ verb verb: obviate; 3rd person present: obviates; past tense: obviated; past participle: obviated; gerund or present participle: obviating

remove (a need or difficulty).

"the presence of roller blinds obviated the need for curtains"

synonyms: preclude, prevent, remove, get rid of, do away with, get round, rule out, eliminate, make unnecessary, take away, foreclose, avoid, avert, counter

"the settlement obviated the need for the separate cases to be heard in court"

avoid or prevent (something undesirable).

"a parachute can be used to obviate disaster"

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  • Please add a reference to the definitions. It's not cricket to quote without attribution! – ab2 Dec 26 '15 at 3:00
  • There are some interesting answers here, but I think self-obviating fits the best and it's a word I haven't heard or used for a very long time. – Alo Jan 7 '16 at 0:55
13

There is 'self-defeating':

Self-defeating - adjective

1 - serving to frustrate, thwart, etc., one's own intention or interests: His behavior was certainly self-defeating.

www.dictionary.com

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  • 2
    I've always thought of self-defeating as being more like "causing the problem you were trying to solve" rather than "rendering moot the problem" as the OPs description of the situation describes. – Michael Broughton Nov 27 '15 at 14:37
  • @MichaelBroughton Yes, I am inclined to agree - my actions did not feel self-defeating as they did actually solve the problem; my garage was tidy afterwards. However, there was nothing to put on the shelves. – Alo Nov 27 '15 at 14:51
  • 1
    Lucky you. I have kids... there is ALWAYS something that needs to be put on shelves! lol. – Michael Broughton Nov 27 '15 at 14:54
  • And indeed, maybe that is the sort of phrase you want. Something like "thus rendering the problem obsolete" – Michael Broughton Nov 27 '15 at 14:56
13

I think self-defeating is close, but I would use the phrase defeats the purpose instead.

However, I do not quite agree you building the shelving was pointless. You ended up having cool new shelves instead of random bits of wood sitting around.

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  • 3
    +1 for observing that the work wasn't pointless. You might even use the word recycling as an answer :) . – Lawrence Nov 28 '15 at 6:26
8

This strikes me as a classic Catch-22.

A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently contradictory rules or conditions

The term was coined by Joseph Heller in the comic novel Catch-22, and is such a useful idea that logicians have formalized and adopted it. It's also entered common speech. I think it's sometimes misused to mean, in general, 'an inescapable situation' but OP's case fits the more precise definition.

The book itself provides several examples of Catch-22. Here are some:

  1. In order to be excused from combat duty, you must be declared insane. However, in order to be declared insane, you must request a psychiatric evaluation, which only a sane person (who doesn't want to die in combat) would do. Thus, the very act of seeking an insanity diagnosis prevents such a diagnosis.

  2. A prostitute (who has sex for money) refuses to marry any man she deems crazy. Her definition of 'crazy' is any man that would marry a woman who has already had sex. The conditions logically preclude the possibility that she will ever marry a man.

The Wikipedia page on Catch-22 in logic gives a more concise example:

  1. To apply for a job, you need to have a few years of experience; but in order to gain experience you need to get a job.

I think OP's case is even neater:

  1. In order to store the wood, you must build a shelf; but in order to build the shelf you must use the wood.
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  • This doesn't strike me as a Catch-22 situation. He could have bought shelving, so it wasn't an impossible outcome to create shelving to store the excess wood. – rybo111 Dec 26 '15 at 2:32
  • Yeah, I guess it's only a Catch-22 if you accept some constraint like "without leaving the garage" or "without spending money." Similarly, in my third example, there might be something like an internship that would allow you to gain experience without getting a job. But in the simplified world where a job is the only way to get experience, it really is a Catch-22. – jabrew Dec 28 '15 at 19:47
4

I don't see why your project was self-defeating: since you no longer have scrap wood cluttering your garage, it seems it was actually self-fulfilling. But I think the self-contradictory part comes into the consideration of whether you've built a scrap-wood storage system. Clearly making the shelving eliminated the need to consider the question since the solution itself did away with the need to consider the problem. When a question is an academic enterprise, devoid of practical consequences, it is called moot. When an activity makes itself a moot consideration, it is called self-mooting. Consider this example from a motion from a long-suffering defendant in a law suit who complained that the plaintiff had decided to

prevent the deposition from going forward by filing this patently frivolous, self-contradictory, self-mooting motion by which Plaintiffs are moving on May 10, 2011 for an order retroactively preventing a deposition from taking place on April 19, 2011, when the deposition already has to be rescheduled because they blocked it by filing this motion.

As far as I can tell, the motion is frivolous because it seeks to prevent a deposition from taking place after the deposition had been cancelled. This had the effect of blocking any rescheduling of the deposition since the rules of civil procedure require that the parties to wait for the court to consider the motion. Once the defendants got the delay they wanted by filing the motion, there was no reason for the court to consider the merits of the motion, making the motion self-mooting.

Here's another example from the December 1989 issue of Spy magazine (which I still miss):

Infamy has become a self-mooting concept.

This is from an article by Richard Stengel called "Here Today, Here Tomorrow" on why we can't seem to get rid of celebrities. Even disgrace cancels its own opprobrium with the glamor of the fame it induces.

Finally, an example from the website The DailyKos about the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids anyone from being elected President more than twice. Some people claim that the amendment does not preclude a President who has been elected twice (e.g, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama) from serving a third term by being elected Vice-President on a ticket with a Presidential candidate who immediately resigns upon election. This would allow the Vice-President to assume the office of President a third time by succession, not election. A commenter notes that this interpretation

... requires a claim that the language of the 22nd [Amendment] was drafted so as to make the provision essentially self-mooting....

Legal interpretation generally holds that provisions of the law not be interpreted to be self-defeating.

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  • Great. Another driveby downvoter, a plague on this site. – deadrat Nov 28 '15 at 6:16
  • Not a downvoter, but are there any other citations for this? I like the sound of it, but I've never heard it except in this source, so it might be something the defendant made up, rather than an established usage. Since we could all make up new phrases, I assume the OP is looking for something pre-existing. – underscore_d Nov 28 '15 at 18:38
  • @underscore_d When I get time, I'll take a look to see whether there are other uses. This one is over four years old, so it's certainly pre-existing. I think it would have been absolutely fine to have appended a comment saying it was too idiosyncratic, too tied to legal procedure, or the like and then downvoted (with or without a declaration). A down vote just means you didn't find the answer helpful. My objection is to drivebys, downvotes with no explanation. This gives the answerer no opportunity to improve the answer and leaves readers with no guidance on why the answer may be lacking. – deadrat Nov 28 '15 at 21:07
  • I agree re downvoting. I guess I should've used something better than "pre-existing": I meant 'in circulation', i.e. cropping up in writing/speech by multiple people, rather than (potentially) a single source. A quick Google returns 56 results for "self-mooting" in quotes, of which the top is this thread. I like it and would be happy to see it in general use, but I don't think it is. Still, maybe the OP is just looking for a concise phrase, not a common one, so I'll stop pushing the latter assumption for now! – underscore_d Nov 28 '15 at 21:15
  • @underscore_d I have kept my promise. (See the edit to the answer.) It's still not a common phrase. And it's use might require more explanation than it's worth, which, come to think of it, might make it self-mooting itself. – deadrat Nov 29 '15 at 4:46
3

I'd suggest, "vain"

Longman Dictionary: "A vain attempt fails to achieve the result you wanted."

Here are two examples:

"I built shelving in a vain attempt to store the material."

"I used up all shelving material in a vain attempt to build shelving."

And this idiom: "in vain" from Oxford Dictionary

For example:

"I used up all material to build shelving in vain for storing the material."

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1

A useless or pointless activity is nugatory

There is no point analyzing the frobniz requirement, it would be nugatory effort.

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  • 1
    Although interesting for its own sake, this seems no better than other, more common imprecise words like futile or redundant, which by virtue of the OP including in their question, I assume they already discounted. – underscore_d Nov 28 '15 at 18:35
0

It sounds like 'An exercise in futility'.

A course of action doomed to be futile.

Also 'in vain' would be another word for redundant, but used in a different fashion.

Examples:

His attempt to clear the wood was an exercise in futility.

He tried to clear the wood in vain.

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  • These would at best convey the sentiment that the shelf or the action of building it were pointless - not the circular nuance that it was created to hold items that ceased to exist by virtue of its creation. – underscore_d Nov 28 '15 at 18:36
0

Consider,

of little or no avail

Of no use or advantage, ineffective. This idiom uses avail in the sense of "advantage" or "assistance," a usage dating from the mid-1400s. Also see to little purpose. The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms

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0

You solved your problem - which was having scrap wood lying about. You also happened to find a solution to a problem which you did not have. However for some reason you chose to view having a solution to a problem you don't have as a problem in itshelf.

If you insist on viewing it as a problem which would need solving the closest I could think of is performing a Sisyphys work : doing one work which results in having to start over again. But that one is from Greek mythology (I think), so it is probably not a very good english phrase. Everything else I could think of, someone else had already written in previous answers.

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0

What comes to mind first: creating a space for the wood pieces is a "moot point" now that I've used the wood to create a space to store....does that make sense?

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-1

come to naught:

To come to nothing; be without result or fruition;

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-1

You could call it a Pyrrhic (or hollow) victory, in which the victory itself was offset by the losses to such an extent that you're either worse off or no better off afterwards.

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  • Yeah, this is the first thing that came to my mind, but I decided against posting because it really refers to a hard-fought battle that is won at extreme cost. A garage clean-up doesn't quite fit. There was no great loss or sacrifice. In fact, the OP ended up with a brand-new set of shelves. A Pyrrhic victory would have been he fixed the garage, but the rest of the house burned down in the process. – Michael_B Nov 27 '15 at 21:01
-1

I'd call it a self-defeating venture

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  • 2
    Please edit your answer to describe why you chose this phrase and what it means. – Kit Z. Fox Nov 29 '15 at 22:15

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