25

I'm looking for a good figure of speech to suggest that something is irreversible.

It would be used in the following context: "I'm sorry, dear, but you said you hate her loud and clear, and there is nothing you can do about it now. _______________________________.

I thought of "once said can't be taken back" or "there are three things that cannot be taken back, the spoken word..." but these are not figures of speech.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • 17
    A bell cannot be unrung. – deadrat May 2 '16 at 1:24
  • 1
    "Oopsie" (Not exactly a figure of speech but I couldn't resist listing it) – Carel May 2 '16 at 13:29
  • 10
    "You can't unring that bell." "That ship has sailed." – mHurley May 2 '16 at 13:52
  • 1
    "cannot be taken back" most definitely is a figure of speech. It's just that the metaphor is so ordinary and commonplace, you don't recognize it as such :) – Otheus May 2 '16 at 14:06
  • 1
    Not so much a common figure of speech as far as I know, but goodreads.com/book/show/18249374-unchopping-a-tree refers to an action that is irreversible. – David K May 5 '16 at 10:51

16 Answers 16

42

"You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube."

This idiom was popularized after the release of the White House tapes in connection with the Watergate Scandal of the early 70's, which contained H.R. Haldeman's conversation with Presidential Counsel John Dean. Haldeman tried to dissuade Dean from testifying to the Senate, saying “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s going to be very hard to get it back in.”

"The cat's out of the bag."

Letting the cat out of the bag refers to accidentally revealing a secret. It has to do with unscrupulous pig sellers swapping out a bagged piglet for a bagged cat - the deception would be revealed when the buyer came home and "let the cat out of the bag."

Personally I like "You can't unring that bell" as deadrat mentioned above. The phrase refers to the fact that you can't un-hear a bell that has been rung. There's a nice essay about its history here:

http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/unring_the_bell

  • 10
    You cannot unring the toothpaste tube. – Drew May 2 '16 at 2:42
  • 2
    I've seen enough cat videos on YouTube to know that the second one isn't necessarily valid. – Carcigenicate May 2 '16 at 11:07
  • 1
    @drew shouldn't that be unwring? – Pete Kirkham May 2 '16 at 21:47
  • 4
    I had always heard it as "You can't put the genie back in the bottle". Surprised to see this not really mentioned here. – jdunk May 3 '16 at 0:02
  • 2
    I particularly like "unring the bell" here, since it applies generally to anything you might wish had not been said, whereas other idioms tend to be more restrictive ("cat's out of the bag" = deception revealed) or are more suggestive of the difficulty of reversing some physical change (e.g., soilcarboncoalition.org/unscramble). – David K May 5 '16 at 10:43
33

You can't unscramble an egg, dictionary.com

Some processes are irreversible

This, and almost any answer, will be a variant on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. See Hmolpedia for entropy, putting eggs back together and Boltzman models.

In thermodynamics, you can’t unscramble an egg or a "broken egg can't unite back into a whole egg" are oft-used layperson’s descriptions of the either entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, or the arrow of time.

  • 6
    Quantum physics disagrees. – Mazura May 2 '16 at 4:23
  • 10
    To unscramble an egg, feed it to a chicken. – Joshua May 2 '16 at 15:16
  • 4
    @Joshua That's cannibalism, which is frowned upon in most societies. – TaylorAllred May 2 '16 at 22:19
  • 2
    @TaylorAllred Do you think the chicken knows that? – cat May 3 '16 at 0:27
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    It was more of a joke, but in all reality, from what I remember, it's not good to feed chicken products to chickens. I don't know about shelled eggs, but if you feed shells to chickens, they will start to eat their own eggs, and if you feed them chicken, they will start killing and eating chickens they live with. – TaylorAllred May 3 '16 at 0:30
26

I like the idiom set in stone. It means an action or event is rigidly unchangeable, and it has a strong connotation. See The Free Dictionary.

Usage:

I can't change my appointment to attend the ball game. It's set in stone.

25

You cannot turn back the clock.

Return to the past or to a previous way of doing things: we can’t turn the clock back—what’s happened has happened - ODO

This relates to the desire to go back to a point in time to 'undo' the speech.

22

to cross the Rubicon

to do something which will have very important results, which cannot be changed later — Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms

EDIT: This idiom most applicable if someone had made a difficult decision from where there is no way back, so may be too specific for OP?

Regarding background :

This high-level idiom comes from an event in ancient Roman history. In 49 BC Julius Caesar's army crossed the Rubicon River, an action that started civil war. It was forbidden for any army to cross the border river, so when Caesar's army did, he knew he was doing something which would have important results that could not be changed later. — http://www.ecenglish.com/learnenglish/lessons/idiom-day-crossing-rubicon

  • 9
    An even better answer is the sentence which Julius Caesar spoke when he crossed the Rubicon: "The die is cast!" – librik May 2 '16 at 3:38
  • 3
    ^^alea iacta est – Nick May 2 '16 at 4:51
  • 1
    "An ancient Roman law forbade any general from crossing the Rubicon River and entering Italy proper with a standing army. To do so was treason. " See eyewitnesstohistory.com/caesar.htm – Paul Chernoch May 3 '16 at 15:06
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    @Xen2050 How many people do you suppose are out there who don't know the expression "cross the Rubicon" but do know that the Rubicon is a river? I'd guess very few. – Casey May 4 '16 at 16:30
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    @Xen2050 And these people are communicating in English, but are unfamiliar with this common idiom? You may as well suggest people avoid "David and Goliath" because if you haven't read the Bible you might not know who David and Goliath are. – Casey May 5 '16 at 13:47
17

What's done is done

The expression uses the word "done" in the sense of "finished" or "settled", a usage which dates back to the first half of the 15th century
Meaning
It usually means something along the line of: the consequence of a situation (which was once within your control), is now out of your control, that is, "there's no changing the past, so learn from it and move on."
Etymology
One of the first-recorded uses of this phrase was by the character Lady Macbeth in the tragedy play Macbeth by the English playwright William Shakespeare, who said: "Things without all remedy Should be without regard: what's done, is done" and "Give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone. – To bed, to bed, to bed!"

Wikipedia

  • 1
    Not a figure of speech. – Centaurus May 2 '16 at 13:32
  • 2
    @Centaurus It's not? Why not? – Xen2050 May 3 '16 at 0:10
  • 5
    @Centaurus There's about 80 different schemes and looks like 100+ tropes, "what's done is done" looks exactly like a truism, (if not others too). So, it apparently is a figure of speech, thanks. – Xen2050 May 3 '16 at 0:48
15

[all] bridges/boats are burned (behind one)

burn one's bridges (behind one)

Fig. to make decisions that cannot be changed in the future. This expression is derived from the idea of burning down a bridge after crossing it during a military campaign, leaving no choice but to continue the march. Figuratively, it means to commit oneself to a particular course of action by making an alternative course impossible. It is most often used in reference to deliberately alienating persons or institutions whose cooperation is required for some action. For instance, "On my last day at my old job, I told my boss what I really think about the company. I guess I burned my bridges."

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

Burn one's boats

This is a variation of "burning one's bridges", and alludes to certain famous incidents where a commander, having landed in a hostile country, ordered his men to destroy their ships, so that they would have to conquer the country or be killed.

the milk is spilled [, it's no use crying over it]

It's no use crying over spilled milk and Don't cry over spilled milk

Prov. Do not be upset about making a mistake, since you cannot change that now. I know you don't like your new haircut, but you can't change it now. It's no use crying over spilled milk. OK, so you broke the drill I lent you. Don't cry over spilled milk.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

that (or the) ship has sailed/the train has left the station/the boat is missed

The opportunity has already passed.

Wiktionary

the water is under the bridge

water under the bridge

: something that has happened and cannot be changed.

Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms

[There are no do-overs,] you can't un-say what's been said; you can't put the spells back in the book

You can't fix everyone who's broken, and you can't un-say what's been said.

Google News

  • In the vein of the milk saying, there is, "You can't unspill the milk." – jpmc26 May 3 '16 at 11:13
8

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Omar Khayyam

It's bit long, but most people will recognise it from just 'The Moving Finger writes;"

"The horse has bolted", "the bird has flown", "the bolt is shot".

The former is often used in the longer phrase to criticise the timing of an otherwise sound action that was done too late "that's shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted".

The latter probably refers to a crossbow bolt, though it could also refer to a door bolt, that is 'shot' across to lock a door closed.

8

There are many good answers already, but one not included is "The genie is out of the bottle". With a slightly different emphasis, another traditional one is "No use in crying over spilt mik".

  • +1 These are both very common and well-known. I also rather like a particular very vivid modern variant of the "spilt milk" expression that was coined in a Game of Thrones script: "Once the cow has been milked, there's no squirting the milk back up her udders". It's not well known but the meaning is clear and it's sure to get a reaction... – user56reinstatemonica8 May 4 '16 at 10:48
8

The die is cast.

This is actually what Caesar was reputed to have said when he crossed the Rubicon. He meant 'there's no turning back now'.

To quote from the Wikipedia page:

Alea iacta est ("The die is cast") is a Latin phrase attributed by Suetonius (as iacta alea est [ˈjakta ˈaːlea est]) to Julius Caesar on January 10, 49 BC as he led his army across the Rubicon river in Northern Italy.

  • Always thought it was 'dye'. Now I know. – Prinsig May 5 '16 at 12:56
5

Try fait accompli

A thing accomplished and presumably irreversible Or Something that has been done and cannot be changed.

3

"No take backs."

the command that instructs another party that once they have given you something they cannot change their mind. –Urban Dictionary

2

A longer expression might be

Once he's fallen, there's no putting Humpty Dumpty together again.

Some people may see this Humpty Dumpty example as being essentially the same as ab2's "you can't unscramble an egg" suggestion—but Humpty Dumpty himself would surely disagree:

“It's very provoking,” Humpty Dumpty said after a long silence, looking away from Alice as he spoke, “to be called an egg—very!”

And speaking of falls, there is also

You can't go back to Eden.

  • That's the first thing that came to my mind, Humpty Dumpty. Isn't the usual way of alluding to this nursery rhyme "All the king's horses and all the king's men…" with that (to the foreigner who would not know what the phrase refers to) annoying habit of leaving the sentence unfinished? An insider code to make others understand that if they are not English born and bread, they are… well, helpless! – user58319 May 4 '16 at 8:58
1

You can't have your cake and eat it too.

  • 3
    Well, I can. It's a stupid phrase I hear these days. – NVZ May 2 '16 at 3:49
  • 4
    @NVZ The meaning of this phrase (which is not an appropriate answer to this question) is clearer when you think about what you have after you've eaten the cake: no cake. You can't have your cake and eat it, too would be clearer if it were phrased, you can't keep your cake and eat it, too. Once you've eaten it, it's gone, and you no longer have it any more. If you want to keep your cake in the fridge so you can look at it every day and revel in the joy of cake ownership, well then you can't eat it. – Todd Wilcox May 2 '16 at 13:48
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    @ToddWilcox If it was rephrased as You can't eat your cake and have it too, I'd agree that's technically correct. Because after it's eaten, you don't have it with you anymore. But the usual saying, you can't have your cake and eat it too makes no sense. If I have a cake, I can eat it. Why else would I have a cake with me? – NVZ May 2 '16 at 14:07
  • @NVZ I agree this maxim as it is always quoted is poorly worded. I would say it's not so often that the order that things are listed is meant to imply the order that events take place. In this case, the events are meant to be interpreted simultaneously. You can't simultaneously be eating a cake and keeping it around for later. – Todd Wilcox May 2 '16 at 14:31
  • 1
    @NVZ It's a very old saying. I suspect it sounded more natural when this particular turn of phrase became popular. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_can't_have_your_cake_and_eat_it – jpmc26 May 3 '16 at 11:16
0

"That ship has sailed."

This, I believe, dates back to when getting a ship back to harbor was a significantly more difficult undertaking than reversing course and returning to the dock.

0

You can't unring that bell. is a favorite.

  • It has already been mentioned in an answered. – Centaurus May 5 '16 at 16:29

protected by Andrew Leach May 2 '16 at 8:34

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