In the Indian language of Malayalam, there's a saying "Aana vayil ambazhanga", which literally translates to:

A small fruit in an elephant's mouth.

It means:

Having too small an amount for a very large need.

What's an equivalent idiom in English?

"Bring a knife to a gunfight", can mean entering a conflict without preparation. "Too little, too late" can mean something is not in time to be effective. These don't fit here, because I want it to only mean "too small an amount for a very large need" and nothing more.

  • If you're rejecting "too little too late" then we need more positive examples of how this is used because "Having too small an amount for a very large need" fits the first half of that perfectly. Same with the gunfight. If that's not what you mean, what do you mean? May 29, 2016 at 4:15
  • @CandiedOrange While I was thinking about an example, an answer was posted. That kind of hits the mark.
    – NVZ
    May 29, 2016 at 4:25
  • 1
    consider "big fish in a small pond" for H.R. -like situations
    – Fattie
    May 29, 2016 at 11:55
  • 13
    "A drop in the bucket" seems to me the closest equivalent. I would not say "a big fish in a small pond"--that implies something else--and "a drop in the ocean" is vaguer.
    – SAH
    May 29, 2016 at 16:45

7 Answers 7


Try drop in the ocean, defined by Cambridge dictionary as

A very small amount compared to the amount needed.

  • 13
    Also, A drop in the bucket. May 29, 2016 at 17:56

"A drop in the bucket / ocean" is the idiom for your context. But, there are some short phrases that could be used.

"Practically (or virtually) nothing" means it is too small to satisfy any needs. For example:

A small fruit in an elephant's mouth. That's practically nothing.

You could also consider using "a mere smidgen".

  • Right - "virtually" is ridiculously popular these days. (It's used to mean, simply, "very".) So "virtually nothing" is the really typical thing that would be said in practice by most folks today.
    – Fattie
    May 29, 2016 at 11:54
  • 8
    @JoeBlow Virtually also means nearly; almost :)
    – NVZ
    May 29, 2016 at 12:06
  • 1
    Do you mean it almost means nearly? :)
    – Fattie
    May 29, 2016 at 12:15
  • 5
    @JoeBlow: Yeah, literally!    :-)    ⁠ May 29, 2016 at 16:55
  • 4
    Now I see the funny side, figuratively ;)
    – NVZ
    May 29, 2016 at 17:11

This page seems to be trending toward noun phrases (although "bring a knife to a gunfight" is, obviously, a verb phrase).  Another verb phrase that may fit your need is scratch the surface:

To deal with only a very small part of a subject or a problem:
The amount of aid that has been offered is hardly going to scratch the surface of the problem.
                        — Cambridge English Dictionary

Investigate or treat something superficially, as in
This feed-the-hungry program only scratches the surface of the problem.
                        — Dictionary.com

  • +1 This is good. I didn't restrict answers to noun phrases. Saying "this is just a knife at a gunfight" could be a shift to noun-ish phrase. :)
    – NVZ
    May 29, 2016 at 17:08
  • This may be just me, but as we are talking about things, apparently too few things or too small an amount, I intuitively would go to noun phrases and only go to verb phrases when talking about actions/proceedings. The combination feels odd. I'm not a native speaker though ... May 31, 2016 at 7:26

I think you might consider something like "pissing on a forest fire" or "spitting on a house fire" but these are very regional and informal.


When a somewhat violent connotation is desired:

(like putting) a band-aid on a bullet wound

Haven't found a standard reference for the phrase. It's a fairly recent coinage and seems popular online .


English tends to allow for quite creative metaphors so you could entirely legitimately make up your own version and people would understand what you mean.

To take the example you quote 'a small fruit in an elephant's mouth' is perhaps a little awkward but, with context it would be understood by fluent speakers of English. It could also be improved by being more specific, for example you could say 'your plan is like feeding a grape to a hungry elephant'.

In fact in English there is a whole class of similar metaphors for things which are inadequate, futile, inappropriate or useless which go along the lines of 'A [noun] at/for/in [noun]]'

Similarly English tends to be very open to novelty and metaphors from other languages often find their way into general usage. For example there isn't a generic English word for a 'small fruit' so that is a niche waiting to be filled.

  • "Berry" is very similar to "small fruit", but not quite synonymous.
    – wjandrea
    May 30, 2016 at 16:58

A drop of water for a parched mouth - to convey the desperation

  • Hi Anand, can you support your answer by providing a reference for it?
    – Sam
    Jun 1, 2016 at 14:48

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