Do we have any idiom in English stating such a concept? "the problem got so bad/complex that it cannot be solved anymore"

12 Answers 12


You may use the idiomatic expression quagmire:

  • a situation that is hard to deal with or get out of : a situation that is full of problems.


  • That was six months ago, when the Defense secretary laughingly dismissed the idea that Iraq was, or could turn into, a quagmire.



A blind alley :

  • (informal) a situation in which no further progress can be made.


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    Quagmire certainly applies, but I fail to see how it's an "idiomatic expression"—isn't it just a "word"? – wchargin May 23 '16 at 6:07
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    @wchargin - it is idiomatic because it's used in a figurative sense here. – user66974 May 23 '16 at 6:19

For not very formal use, and in the vein of IvanSanchez's answer but which is arguably a little stronger: FUBAR. "That thing is FUBAR'd". It's an acronym that stands for

  • fucked
  • up
  • beyond
  • all
  • recognition

Since the situation is now "beyond all recognition", it is deemed impossible to solve.

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    The original military usage had the R meaning "repair", I believe. – Ketura May 23 '16 at 16:40
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    snafu + fubar = snafubar! – ErikE May 23 '16 at 16:44
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    This is for very informal usage though – Tim Malone May 23 '16 at 23:19

Sisyphus was doomed to push a rock up a hill only for it to roll down every night. From this we get the concept of a Sisyphean task.

There are many colloquial phrases perhaps derived in spirit from this myth, for tasks which can't be completed, for example pushing water uphill with a rake and nailing jelly to a wall. These are quite common in UK engineering circles.

If it was impossible when it was given to you and your manager knew it but you didn't, the effect on your career might be serious. In this case the phrase poisoned chalice would be applicable. Strictly this lacks the sense of impossibility of fixing solving the problem, but a solution wouldn't be a success.

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  • Sisyphean is not complex, just tedious. – Nemo May 23 '16 at 10:34
  • @Nemo, "complex" was an option, the more general "bad" was too. – Chris H May 23 '16 at 11:12
  • Love the phrase, but it applies more to the case of persons assigned to futile labor, rather than the plan itself; i.e. Sysyphus' task is deservedly and intentionally futile, whereas the OP wants more of a devolving misfortune. – agc May 23 '16 at 15:03
  • @agc you may be right, though something like, "as we tried to meet the customer's requirements we realised we had a Sisyphean task on our hands" could be OK (it was always futile, but the victim didn't know at first). The question is rather short, so this might fit nicely, or might be completely irrelevant. – Chris H May 23 '16 at 15:08
  • @ChrisH, that usage employs the familiar phrase, but the usage is not itself a familar phrase. On the other hand an Ngram of post 1994 usages seem to be mostly about tasks becoming hopeless, rather than starting out that way, so you also may be right... – agc May 23 '16 at 15:23

I would simply say unsolvable or (thank you @OrangeDog) insoluble. As @JohnWaylandBales replied you also have intractable but you were asking for "cannot be solved" not "hard to solve".

There is an interesting word for a problem so hard to solve within its (usually implied) rules but so important that someone breaks those rules in order to obtain a solution: a gordian knot problem, cutting the gordian knot.

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    And the older, but still current, insoluble. – OrangeDog May 23 '16 at 10:41
  • @OrangeDog: can't understand why I didn't think of that one, edited it in, thanks! – Law29 May 23 '16 at 14:26
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    All the links to definitions are great. Your answer would be improved, though, by including those definitions in your post, properly referenced (in addition to a link, the source must be stated in text). – ErikE May 23 '16 at 16:43
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    Insoluble would tend to be more "cannot be dissolved" these days – Tim Malone May 23 '16 at 23:21

I would say SNAFU, military slang for «Situation Normal: All Fucked Up». The problem/situation is horrible, but it's been so for long enough as to be accepted as the normal situation.

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A project that has gotten so difficult as to be impossible is sometimes called a death march.

In project management, a death march is a project where the members feel it is destined to fail, or requires a stretch of unsustainable overwork. The general feel of the project reflects that of an actual death march because the members of the project are forced to continue the project by their superiors against their better judgment.


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    Is it obvious to everyone that some people might find this offensive? – Scott May 23 '16 at 22:49

"Your project is doomed"



  1. marked for certain death
    "the black spot told the old sailor he was doomed"

  2. marked by or promising bad fortune
    "their business venture was doomed from the start"

Forlorn hopeTFD

An undertaking that seems very unlikely to succeed.

"This plan you have is a forlorn hope and will never work out the way you want"

Lost causeTFD

a futile attempt; a hopeless matter.

"Our campaign to have the new party on the ballot was a lost cause."
"Todd gave it up as a lost cause."

Losing battleTFD

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The problem has become intractable.

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  • Intractable means hard to solve, not impossible. – Law29 May 23 '16 at 5:06
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    Often used as "solvable in theory but so hard it is impossible to solve in practice". – gnasher729 May 23 '16 at 6:39
  • Please explain your answer in full. Why has the problem become intractable? – Matt E. Эллен May 25 '16 at 9:24

Well if you want to make sure nobody but computing scientists understand you, you could always say:

The problem is NP-complete.

But this actually means that you can devise a way (an algorithm) that would in theory solve the problem, but in practice it would take an infinite (or impractically long) time.

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  • This is incorrect usage of NP-complete. NP-complete is a specific class of problems that though solvable, in general it takes an impractical amount of time to complete. BUT: These are simply one among many distinct classes of difficult problems, and any specific example can be solved. – Alan Baljeu May 24 '16 at 17:55
  • @AlanBaljeu — Don't I say that? – David May 24 '16 at 18:55
  • You pose it as an answer, but it simply is not a valid answer. I work regularly with NP complete problems. Saying something is NP-complete doesn't remotely mean "cannot be solved", or that you should abandon the project. – Alan Baljeu May 24 '16 at 20:12
  • I was being frivolous, Sorry, but as a molecular biologist I've learned to live with stuff being in every wretched IT company's DNA, so think of it as an attempt at revenge. I agree it's not an answer, but it's no worse than most of the others. I'll pull it if it really offends (although I assume the dreaded on hold means the question is so difficult that it cannot be answered.) – David May 24 '16 at 22:00

Gordian Knot

Is used to signify an insurmountable puzzle;

legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (disentangling an "impossible" knot) solved easily by loophole or "thinking outside the box" ("cutting the Gordian knot"):

Gordian Knot

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One more option is:

The problem is incurable.

This metaphorical expression likens the problem to a disease that cannot be cured, and is especially suitable in situations where the problem has gotten worse over time or is too difficult to eliminate without causing harm or further problems, like some terminal illnesses.

Another option is:

The problem has spread like wildfire.

This clearly is applicable to problems that can spread quickly and cannot be easily doused. Not surprisingly, people who try to quell such problems are often described as trying to douse the issue.

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  • In a medical vein: the problem has metastasized - or spread like cancer – Paul Chernoch May 23 '16 at 19:32

There are several that connote having only bad choices available:

  • "Catch 22" (taken from the title of the book of the same name).

  • "between a rock and a hard place"

  • "damned if I do, damned if I don't."

"Tool-blocked" refers to a bolt or screw that is impossible to remove because the necessary tool won't fit or work in the space the fastener is in. It could be used metaphorically to mean a problem that you could try to solve but you would get in your own way.

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