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A Russian acquaintance of mine asked me whether there's an English equivalent of "They keep treading on the same rake": someone walking or running across the backyard or garden steps on the bow rake's teeth, making the handle swing rapidly upward and whack the blunderer in the face: a comic device used frequently in old cartoons (such as Tom and Jerry) or slapstick comedy.

Now, this only happens once or twice in a cartoon, and can be written off as an accident. That's not what the idiom is about; rather, it describes the behavior ... uh ... modus operandi, if you will ... of someone (or maybe a bunch of people) foolish enough to keep treading on the same rake (sitting in the same spot) over and over again. Or delusional, perhaps - you'll recall that Einstein once described crazy behavior as "doing the same thing in the exact same way while expecting different results."

Thus the idiom seems to apply to -

  • bankers (or banks, for that matter) who scheme, swindle and cheat, and get burned, yet resume their murky activities once the dust has settled

  • politicians (or political parties, for that matter) making an attempt, again, to make a system of ideas work that has failed many times in the past

  • people arguing with their spouses of many years even though neither party can recall a single instance of their fighting yielding even remotely satisfactory results in the past

  • folks purchasing $100 worth of lottery tickets every week for years on end

Etc, etc.

There's a bunch of English idioms that come pretty close ("fool's errand," "a fool repeats his folly," and something about stepping into something twice, etc, etc). None of them captures the humorous aspect of the behavior described above.

Here's a variation on the same theme:

enter image description here

Any suggestions?

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    There's nothing wrong with using "They keep treading on the same rake". It's not a popular idiom, but it's a very familiar mental image. – Hot Licks Feb 1 '16 at 3:06
  • Nice question +1). I have come up with one, but it doesn't have the humorous aspect and decided not to post it. :-) – user140086 Feb 1 '16 at 3:08
  • @HotLicks: I'll think about it. – Ricky Feb 1 '16 at 3:39
  • @Rathony: Post it by all means. We'll play around with it, see what it can yield. – Ricky Feb 1 '16 at 3:40
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"Treading" sounds odd because "to tread on" implies intentional stomping which isn't as comic/funny. In English I think we'd just say "They keep stepping on the same rake."

Other idiomatic images might be "They keep shooting themselves in the foot." or "...walking into the same wall."

Or for failed political systems one might say "Building castles out of sand."

More common is to simply say "Some fools never learn."

Also, the quote is actually: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

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It's not uncommon to hear someone disapprovingly say, "this is like groundhog day," if they witness someone else repeat a mistake frequently.

groundhog day: a situation in which a series of unwelcome or tedious events appear to be recurring in exactly the same way.

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"Incorrigible", "unreformable", "irrecoverable" ? This all suggests a certain imperviousness to improvement, which might be slightly different, since you're probably asking about an unwillingness rather than an inability to change.

Maybe the simplest option is to simply say they "keep making the same mistake".

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