In my language there's a saying which literally translates to

Don't burn your house to smoke out a rat!

It advises us to use solutions that are appropriate to the magnitude of the problem.

Eliye pedichu illam chudaruthu! - in Malayalam/Indian.

What could be the English equivalent?

  • 39
    That's a good one. AFAIAC, following the tradition of the English language plagiarizing elements of other languages, hence on, Don't burn your house down to smoke out a rat shall be an English idiom. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 9:28
  • 2
    Not an exact equivalent, but we had a saying in the Navy: "Measure with a micrometer, mark with chalk, cut with an ax."
    – WGroleau
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:25
  • 23
    To be honest, I think any English speaker would understand that idiom perfectly fine.
    – Daniel
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:01
  • @Daniel That's what I thought. But I like to hear different approaches to the same matter.
    – NVZ
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:05
  • 3
    We get this question quite a lot: 1, 2, 3, 4
    – ermanen
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:58

14 Answers 14


This idiom carries the same idea, but it is expressed as a description of what happens when the magnitude of the 'solution' far exceeds the needs of the problem:

Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

This idiom has the reverse idea:

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Instead of advocating restraint when a portion is bad and the rest is valuable, it advocates care when a portion is valuable and the rest is unwanted.

  • 1
    There is the saying ' Dont shoot a wasp with a revolver"
    – Autistic
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 10:31
  • 4
    baby/bathwater is indeed the most common one, I'd say
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 12:17
  • 12
    I’ve never heard the sledgehammer one, and don’t think it quite fits, but the baby and bathwater one is super-common, if somewhat different.
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:14
  • 3
    those 2 idioms have very different implications. using a sledgehammer is disproportionate, but not necessarily detrimental, while the OP's idiom caries the notion that the cons outweights the pros in the final outcome.
    – njzk2
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 19:05
  • 2
    @PLL There's Wikipedia article (which Lawrence linked to in his answer) which quotes a German reference from 1512 (including facsimile), while it claims the earliest known use of the concept in English dates back to 1849.
    – Thomas W.
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 6:18

"Don't cut off your nose to spite your face."

It is not an exact match, but it is an interesting expression. Cutting off the nose to spite the face is used to:

describe a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction to a problem: "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face" is a warning against acting out of pique, or against pursuing revenge in a way that would damage oneself more than the object of one's anger.

...It was not uncommon in the Middle Ages for a person to cut the nose off of another for various reasons, including punishment from the state, or as an act of revenge. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes that the phrase may have originated from this practice, as at this time "cutting off someone's nose was the prototypical act of spite."

The expression has since become a blanket term for (often unwise) self-destructive actions motivated purely by anger or desire for revenge. For example, if a man was angered by his wife, he might burn down their house to punish her; however, burning down her house would also mean burning down his, along with all of their possessions.


  • good thinking - that's a common one too
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 12:18
  • 6
    This feels like a better fit since it captures the self-destructive element of the original phrase.
    – Dancrumb
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:30
  • this is a horrible thing to say.
    – njzk2
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 19:08
  • 3
    "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face" was the first thing I thought of too; but it doesn't really match the OP's proverb, in that "Don't cut..." is warning specifically against the dangers of overreacting out of a negative emotional state (spite, anger, frustration), and not against plain old "over-engineering". Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 6:31

In my neck of the woods, it is.

Don't kill flies with hand grenades

  • I used to hear this one a lot more decades ago. I don't know if its on the decline, or I just hang out in different circles these days.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:36
  • 9
    I am very old and your old circle says hello.
    – King-Ink
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:49
  • I would understand this one as similar to “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”: it emphasises overpoweredness, not counterproductiveness like the OP’s proverb.
    – PLL
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 20:12
  • 2
    @PLL - It's likely that the effects of the sledgehammer are mostly limited to the nut. But similar to "burning down the house to smoke out a rat", the hand grenade is likely to have serious collateral effects, especially if the flies (and the hand grenade) are inside a house/structure. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 0:52
  • 1
    @KevinFegan Or if the hand grenade is not contained in a structure and you happen to be somewhere close to it.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 2:03

I believe the answers already posted hit the nail on the head but I feel this is appropriate for when someone has already used over the top methods or effort to solve an issue.

You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!

This comes from the film 'The Italian Job' and has been voted the favourite one liner from a film (in 2003), as such is probably quite well known. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Italian_Job

It refers to a scene where a car's doors were meant to be blown off with a small explosion but instead the entirety of the vehicle is blown to pieces.

This I would consider a light hearted response provided the person you are talking with knows of this film. (It would also help to sport a Michael Caine accent if possible but not necesssary.)

  • I like Mr. Caine. I like this one. :)
    – NVZ
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 11:15
  • 10
    Interesting, but if we are referencing movie one-liners, I think the proper reference would be "You think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?" from 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I use that one myself all the time. FWIW, that vote you refer to only polled Brits.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:39
  • 1
    It's actually from the original The Italian Job (1969) and has been referenced in Britain ever since :D
    – Samthere
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 9:32
  • @T.E.D. I hadn't checked the source for the vote, I'll be sure to note that kind of thing in future :)
    – weejammaz
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 18:27
  • 1
    From what I can see about that movie, its very well-known in England due probably to the cast (and production company) being mostly English, but I'm not sure how well-known it is elsewhere. I've never seen it personally (seen BC&SK at least 4 times), but I had heard of it thanks to having a cube-mate from England. We had pretty much this exact conversation between the two of us a year ago. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 18:46

The cure is worse than the disease

This is heard more often and refers to a similar situation. With both the burn-the-house and sledgehammer-as-nut-cracker "solutions" is that in the process, you undermine the need for a solution at all.

The "definition" for the sledgehammer phrase is summarized as "overkill", but that doesn't aptly express the problem. A hammer is not merely overkill, but will likely destroy the edible portion of the nut. Burning the house is not merely overkill to the problem of ridding it of a mouse, but will destroy your shelter.

  • this is probably the suggestion that is closest to the original meaning of the OP's idiom (with the nose one, which is disgusting on top of it). The solution is more detrimental than beneficial.
    – njzk2
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 19:08

An exact match in English is available!

Burn not your house to fright the mouse away

Prov. Do not do something drastic when it is not necessary

[The Free Dictionary]

If this sounds archaic, it can simply be re-phrased as

Don't burn your house to scare away a mouse


NewbieUser009: Man, I am sick of all the downvotes for my EL&U questions. I should probably delete my account.

EstablishedUser007: Now, that is not the solution, is it? Go through some popular questions, try to infer what is common among all the top voted questions and answers and try to ask compelling questions. Burn not your house to fright the mouse away.

  • 9
    that is archaic - never heard it.
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 12:18
  • 1
    @JoeBlow - The proverb is structured that way. I have re-phrased it to suit modern English to the best of my ability.
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 12:33
  • This is the most literal match to the original phrase, basically just replacing the rat with a mouse, and adding a rhyme in the process. I've still never heard it in common usage before, but the meaning is pretty clear. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 22:19
  • "Don't burn your house to fright a mouse" seems a good alternative.
    – Theraot
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 3:13

I once heard this:

Don't use a cannon to kill a mosquito -- Confucius

Although this is a translation and not originally an English idiom, I believe it is relatively well known in the English language. So it might also be an option.

  • 8
    The saying is fine, but the cannon was invented some 1,500 years after Confucius' time.
    – Jacinto
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 9:56
  • 29
    @Jacinto: "Don't believe all quotes you read on the internet." - Abraham Lincoln Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 10:03
  • 2
    This is quite similar to the equivalent German idiom "to shoot with cannons at sparrows" ("mit Kanonen auf Spatzen schießen").
    – Dubu
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 13:45
  • 2
    @Jacinto Not to mention the fact that mosquitos are a New World pest... Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 16:07
  • 1
    @MasonWheeler Mosquitos are definitely present in Southeast Asia. Source: Plenty of personal experience.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 2:07

Another option is:

To use a sledgehammer to crack a nut :

  • to use disproportionate force or expense to overcome a minor problem.

(The Phrase Finder)

  • This is the same as @Lawrence's answer
    – user108066
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 10:46
  • 1
    @user1108 - he added it to his original answer at the same time if not moments later than I did.
    – user66974
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 10:48
  • what a cheeky devil!
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 12:18
  • @Josh61 - I didn't check the edit history. No problem.
    – user108066
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 12:38

The entire phenomena being described here - of doing something to solve your problem but ending up worse for it in the end - could be thought of as a pyrrhic victory

Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way. However, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit.

Though the comparison isn't perfect - phyrric victories are more related to losing more than your foe, such that a wider 'war' is lost in the effort, whereas in your example, the personal 'war' is won, but the cost steeper than reasonable.

  • This is the most accurate answer that I've seen so far. All other have been relatively similar, but this denotes damaging loss for virtually no gain, or worse, speculated gain. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 21:04

We used to say in our native language which means "if the nail grows too much, one should not cut the finger"

  • this one is cute, i like it.
    – user428517
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:15

The one that I'm most familiar with is:

Like using a bazooka as a flyswatter.

For example, this was referenced in the title of one episode of the TV show The Good Wife.

But apparently there's all kind of permutations for this regarding large firearm (bazooka, cannon, shotgun, etc.) and small inoffensive creature (fly, mouse, sparrow, etc.).


  • 1
    I've read Sci-Fi novels (Honor Harrigton series?) that used variants with sci-fi weaponry. So I think this is A Thing, but you can use whatever ridiculously uncalled for weaponry or blunt instrument strikes your fancy at the moment.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 16:56

Don't use a steamroller to open a can of soup

for reference.. the opposite

There is no kill like overkill


If you're going to be a bear, be a grizzly -From Smokey and Bandit


A few phrases I've heard that kind of relate are...

I don't want to shotgun it

This phrase evokes the accuracy and precision of single projectile firearms as opposed to the spread nature of a shotguns pellets. Shotgunning something implies that you are causing collateral damage in an attempt to solve the problem.

A related example when you DO in fact want a massively disproportionate response to a small problem is that...

The virus had permeated my operating system folder, so I decided I should nuke the OS and reinstall.

Which of course states that something is so loathsome to you that you're willing to destroy everything in it's vicinity to get rid of it.

  • 1
    Where I'm from, shotgunning something implies drinking it as fast as it can flow out of a secondary hole in the container. If you used it in another sense, you'd be quite likely to be misunderstood.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 17:00
  • I understand "nuke" in the computer context to mean erase very thoroughly — in a situation where very thorough eradication is called for. I believe that it does not carry the overkill connotation that this question is about. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 5:57
  • I've always of heard 'shotgunning' as randomly trying multiple fixes for a problem instead of working in an orderly linear fashion.
    – Joe L.
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 6:20

I think the answers have suggested many variants on this, but I would add the version I have heard:

Don't use an anti-aircraft gun to kill a bumblebee.

  • By my count, this is the fourth answer to refer to killing insects with unnecessarily powerful means. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 5:53
  • @Scott I wonder what that says about us as a culture.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 6:11
  • That we hate insects even more than we hate rodents? :-)   ⁠ Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 6:42

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