'He went on to kohl it [namely, rim the eye with kohl], so he/she blinded it [the eye].'

This is a rough translation of the Arabic idiom, 'ذهب ليكحلها فعماها'

To rim the eye with kohl is to beautify it. It means trying to fix something and then making it a whole lot worse. It's not the same as 'He added more water to the clay', which in English would be 'add insult to injury'. It's different.

Is there a similarly colourful idiom for this Arabic expression in English?

  • 2
    Does "gild the lily" (a shortening of the original that renders it an unanalyzable idiom) work for you?
    – Brian Tung
    Jan 15, 2016 at 2:08
  • Incidentally, in Chinese, there's an expression that translates to something like "drawing a snake and adding legs" that roughly means the same thing.
    – Brian Tung
    Jan 15, 2016 at 2:10
  • Ahh, OK, I'll think some more about that.
    – Brian Tung
    Jan 15, 2016 at 2:14
  • 1
    @BrianTung The original is ""To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess." None of these descriptions is idiomatic. The sense is not to make things worse but to do the unnecessary.
    – deadrat
    Jan 15, 2016 at 3:19
  • I meant that "gild the lily" is idiomatic, not that any of the original phrases is idiomatic.
    – Brian Tung
    Jan 15, 2016 at 3:27

4 Answers 4


I think the idea of "injuring by (or while) attempting to beautify" has some similarity to "injuring by (or while) attempting to cosset or pamper"—a notion for which the most common English idiom is "kill with kindness." Here is the entry from Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) for that idiom:

kill with kindness Overwhelm or harm someone with mistaken or excessive benevolence. [Example omitted.] This expression originated as kill with kindness as fond apes do their young (presumably crushing them to death in a hug) and was a proverb by the mid-1500s.

Elsewhere, Ammer notes that Thomas Heywood titled one of his plays A Woman Kilde with Kindnesse (1607), alluding to the same proverb.

  • No, that's not it. When you "kill with kindness", you're being too kind. In the Arabic phrase, a mistaken movement hurts the eye, not too much of the blue rimming material.
    – einpoklum
    Aug 28, 2018 at 10:54

A related English phrase could be

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

While you can't use it in quite the same way as the Arabic phrase, the sense is that well-meant actions can often cause more harm than good.


"fixing something that ain't broken."

Also worded as: "If it ain't broke don't fix it".

Bert Lance, US President Jimmy Carter's director of office management and budget, popularized this expression in the late 1970's.

-See the Wikipedia article on Bert Lance.

  • 1
    I think this is apt, but many users will not remember who Bert Lance was -- Carter's Director of OMB. Your answer should include a reference.
    – ab2
    Jan 24, 2016 at 0:48
  • Lol, I do not remember who he was, however, I have always heard the expression. Jan 24, 2016 at 2:04
  • 1
    The Yale Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012) finds a May 1960 source for "If it works, don't fix it," and an April 1964 source for "if it ain't broke don't fix it." I remember it as being one of the things University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal used to say in the 1960s and early 1970s when reporters would ask him if he was considering altering his usual offensive game plan (run, run, run) against a particular upcoming opponent.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 24, 2016 at 6:21



To bring a result opposite to that which was planned or expected Random House

mean well

To do what you ​think will be ​helpful, ​although by doing it you might ​cause ​problems without ​intending to. CDO

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