I would use rope-a-dope, but it's got connotations of pretending to lose that I don't need. I'm trying to describe the behavior of someone who sends twenty detailed emails a day about various projects, and the recipient of his emails has finally gotten tired of trying to parse them, so the recipient just agrees to whatever he proposes. I'd like an expression that evokes both outward earnestness and hidden creepiness, like Uriah Heep, Dickens's "Humble servant" with veiled ambition, who overdoes it with professions of humility until he's in power. Water torture would work, but comes too close to a more racist expression that I'm not comfortable with.

  • 1
    I've never heard "rope-a-dope" - where does that come from? How about "torture by e-mail"!?
    – TrevorD
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 17:26
  • 4
    Rope-a-dope is a strategy Mohammed Ali (boxer) used to outfox his opponent, George Foreman, in a match called the Rumble in The Jungle. He pretended to be beaten, falling on the ropes in the boxing ring so Foreman would pummel him. But the ropes absorbed the shock, and Foreman got tired. Ali won the match. I like Torture by email. Nice.
    – Elby Cloud
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 17:35
  • @ElbyCloud Referring to Mohammed Ali is going back a long time!
    – TrevorD
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 17:44
  • @ElbyCloud - note that "chipping away at..." (only mentioned in passing in an answer way below) is kind of the basic phrase here.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 15:21

16 Answers 16


Lately a favorite of mine while describing the amount of small finishing work left on our house is

Death of/by a thousand cuts (UsingEnglish.com)

If something is suffering the death of a thousand cuts, or death by a thousand cuts, lots of small bad things are happening, none of which are fatal in themselves, but which add up to a slow and painful demise.

The phrase is a transliteration of the Chinese torture and execution practice Lingchi (Wikipedia):

a form of torture and execution used in China from roughly AD 900 until it was banned in 1905. It was also used in Vietnam. In this form of execution, a knife was used to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time, eventually resulting in death.

  • 1
    This works, thank you Vynsane. There is a sense of maliciousness that I like. @Silenus's "erosive email strategy" was also delicious, but was not posed in the form of an answer.
    – Elby Cloud
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 19:09
  • 2
    If it was offic paper memos you could have that with a thousand paper cuts.
    – KalleMP
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 17:01
  • 8
    Reading the title of this question my first thoughts were "death by a thousand papercuts"
    – PowerLuser
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 2:50
  • The only problem with this (otherwise excellent) answer is that it does not imply any intent or malicious actor.
    – StuartQ
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 8:26
  • 3
    @SuartQ - I've added a reference to the origin of the phrase to prove that it absolutely does.
    – vynsane
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 11:47

Kill by inchesFine Dictionary

by gradual means, as by torture

"When he says that it is killing him by inches, and that we must go away, I know he is speaking the truth." — "Lover or Friend" by Rosa Nouchette Carey

AttritionM-W, suggested by @isanae

the act or process of weakening and gradually defeating an enemy through constant attacks and continued pressure over a long period of time

"a war of attrition"

Boiling frogTFD

A problematic situation that will gradually increase in severity until it reaches calamitous proportions, such that the people involved or affected by it will not notice the danger until it is too late to act.

It is a metaphor taken from an anecdotal parable about boiling a frog, in which a frog placed in boiling water will immediately try to save itself, but one placed in cool water that is gradually brought to a boil will not notice the heat until it is boiled to death.

"Drug addiction is often a boiling frog, as many people don't see their addiction as problematic until it has consumed their lives."

  • 8
    That frog thing is a myth, by the way.
    – isanae
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 18:39
  • 1
    @isanae It's already mentioned as "an anecdotal parable" :)
    – NVZ
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 18:42
  • 3
    How can a parable be anecdotal? They're not sure if the parable really was ever told before?
    – Mitch
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 19:02
  • @Mitch perhaps it is a malapropism and NVX meant apocryphal? The way I've heard it is 'boiling the frog and it's not so much that the frog will never notice they're getting boiled, it just takes them longer to notice so that you can get the lid on tight and scrounge up the tabasco.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 19:50
  • 2
    @ColleenV (@NVX is just quoting). It's a parable or anecdote or myth or story. Maybe an apocryphal story. Maybe even an experiment of mythic proportions. But with TFD and wiktionary, anything goes.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 20:58

You could say this person whittled down the recipient:

to reduce the amount of, as if by whittling;

pare down;

take away by degrees (usually followed by down, away, etc.)

to whittle down the company's overhead; to whittle away one's inheritance.

More info on whittle:

carve (wood) into an object by repeatedly cutting small slices from it. synonyms: pare, shave, trim, carve, shape, model

"he sat whittling a piece of wood"

carve (an object) from wood by repeatedly cutting small slices from it. reduce something in size, amount, or extent by a gradual series of steps.

"the short list of fifteen was whittled down to five"

synonyms: erode, wear away, eat away, reduce, diminish, undermine, weaken, subvert, compromise, impair, impede, hinder, cripple, disable, enfeeble, sap

"his powers were whittled away"

reduce, cut down, cut back, prune, trim, slim down, pare down, shrink, decrease, diminish

"the ten teams have been whittled down to six"

  • 2
    Wearing someone down sounds more familiar to me.
    – KalleMP
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 17:00

I've seen T-shirts and bumper stickers describing this as like being "nibbled to death by Ducks"

From Dictionary.com:

nibbled to death by ducks

adjective phrase

Subject to constant petty annoyances : Writing in such an editor-dominated environment was like being nibbled to death by ducks/ is being nickeled-and-dimed, nibbled to death by

  • 10
    Can't help but think about the following quote from the sci-fi TV-show "Babylon 5", where two from an alien-race talks: Londo Mollari: But this…this, this, this is like… being nibbled to death by, uh…Pah! What are those Earth creatures called? Feathers, long bill, webbed feet…go "quack". Vir Cotto: Cats. Londo: Cats! I'm being nibbled to death by cats. Commented May 31, 2016 at 23:06
  • 2
    @JoeBlow - I don't think I've heard it outside of the B5 context. However, clearly J. Michael Straczynski (the series writer) had heard it before, because he wrote a joke off of it. Or perhaps he invented it, and "Michael J." is his account on this stack. The name is awfully coincidental...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 20:17
  • 1
    @T.E.D. Nope, just a coincidence. My only claim to fame is, well, nothing.
    – Michael J.
    Commented Jun 3, 2016 at 11:53

It's not clear to me in your question, whether the sender of the emails is doing this as a deliberate (office-political?) strategy to some end, or whether he is oblivious of the effect he is creating on the receiver.

Similarly, how justifiable is the receiver's unwillingness to further "parse" the emails. Presumably he's not merely tired or lazy?

If you're describing the sender, and wish to imply it's deliberate, then maybe it's a form of microaggression or passive-aggressive behaviour?

If you're more describing the receiver, then maybe he's simply overwhelmed ?

Finally, maybe worth mentioning a one-time deliberate policy (or ploy) of labour agitators called work-to-rule wherein employees follow rules strictly and exactly - in other words, is the email sending a variant of this: rather than going slow, he's clogging a communication line; in other words, some kind of "bureaucratic attitude" or malicious compliance on the part of the sender?

  • 1
    I hadn't heard of work-to-rule or malicious compliance, what useful terms! To answer your first question, I think the sender is probably oblivious to the effect his emails are having, yet he is so disturbingly ambitious it's easy to see it otherwise. I now have a wealth of great answers here to help me hone this and think about it. Is it a micro-aggression or self-defeating over-enthusiasm? I love the English language and its specificity, because answering those questions does so much more than snipe at the irritation, as I was originally doing.
    – Elby Cloud
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 22:30
  • 1
    I remember Trade Unions having their members "work to rule" instead of going on strike - they got paid while "working to rule" because they were still at work! And I remember mention of 'Chinese Water Torture'!
    – TrevorD
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 22:44

What comes to mind:

  • Badgering
  • Getting someone to the 'point of distraction'
  • Hen-pecking
  • Chipping away at someone
  • 3
    Welcome to Stack Exchange!  This is a good start, but this answer could be improved by adding some authoritative definitions and other references. Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 8:14

You could say that they are pestering you.

Pester (from ODO)

verb [with object] Trouble or annoy (someone) with frequent or persistent requests or interruptions: she constantly pestered him with telephone calls

  • 1
    Pestering is what you're doing while do do this, but in itself it doesn't contain the meaning of "wearing down" the target. Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 5:27

If they're technically following work protocol by sending individual emails for each request, TV Tropes suggests Bothering By the Book. The target of such an attack has sometimes been referred to as being nibbled to death by ducks, but that's hard to turn into an action verb.

  • If they're "following work protocol", they are obviously "working to rule"!
    – TrevorD
    Commented May 31, 2016 at 22:48

"Snowflaking" : The idiomatic image of being covered over with small "snowflakes" of requested actions in such a fashion that it prevents concentration on import/high priority work. The particular connotation is that of the head of a bureaucracy giving small, distracting, but required, tasks to subordinates in order to prevent them from concentrating on and perhaps obstructing larger issues. The image is further reinforced if one thinks of a blizzard of memos flying around an office. A recent prevalent use was in relation to Donald Rumsfeld's efforts to transform the US DoD (in the pre 9-11 period)

Snowflaking would apply more to distractions, which might be irritating, than to pure irritations.

  • 1
    This is interesting - I haven't heard it in this context before. When I looked for some corroboration, I found a Slate article about the documentary that mentions the "snowflakes", but no mention of snowflaking and no other usage in this sense outside the context of the film. I found quite a variety of other usages of varying vulgarity though.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 23:28

There are numerous phrases. Most of them are borrowed translations. Here are the most common ones:

  • Nickel and Dime-ing: This does what you describe in economic form, a bunch of tiny charges eventually driving the other into spending large amounts of money.
  • Death of/by a thousand cuts: This one has its origins in descriptions of torture from pre-revolution China. Shoutout to @vynsane for it.
  • Kill by inches. @NVZ brought this one up.
  • Whittling down: Refers to a type of wood carving. Shoutout to @Kevin Workman
  • Draining by Mosquitoes: This one originated in Florida, but I've heard it throughout the US.

Note that there are other terms, some of which are obscure, most of which are dialect-specific, and many of which have fallen out of modern use; all of whic are still valid. If I didn't mention a phrase, it's because I view it as uncommon.


There are already numerous viable answers, but I didn't see this one here, so I thought I'd add it.


verb, \i-'rōd\

to diminish or destroy by degrees

(Merriam Webster)


The straw that broke the camel's back

the straw that broke the camel's back
The final limit of capacity, including patience.
An Arabian anecdote told of a camel whose owner loaded the beast of burden with as much straw as possible. Not satisfied with the staggering load he had put on the camel, the owner added just one last piece of straw. Even that one wisp was too much, and the animal collapsed with a broken back, leaving the owner with no way to take his goods to the market. The story is a parable for all the times you've been repeatedly irked until you can't take it anymore and you explode.

(The Free Dictionary)

As the definition says, this simply means that the straw (sometimes feather), something inconsequential, has been added after you've been repeatedly provoked which caused something to snap.

This is also where we get the phrase final straw from — the final thing that provokes you and makes you snap is the straw


The term gaslight or gaslighting which means to manipulate someone into questioning there own memory, sanity or perception.

The term comes from the play "Gas Light" where an abusive husband slowly drives his wife insane by claiming to not hear noises, moving furniture around and claiming it was always there and he would cause the gas lights dim and then deny the lighting had changed.

  • I was thinking of this term when I asked the original question. It's exactly the right tone. Also, I love Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. And who doesn't want to see a tarted up Mrs. Potts? The reason I didn't use it is that the result of this guys email deluge is apathy, not the recipient questioning her sanity or perception. But cheers for the kindred thought process.
    – Elby Cloud
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 19:07

Cold war - thefreedictionary.com

A state of rivalry and tension between two factions, groups, or individuals that stops short of open, violent confrontation.

  • This bears almost no relation to the question what so ever. Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 5:28
  • @GreenAsJade "There are none so blind as those who won't see" - the OP's description fits the modus operandi of a cold-war combatant very well. Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 5:56
  • So what you are saying is that the word that the OP is looking for would describe modus operandi of cold war combatants. That in no way means that "Cold War" is a phrase that means "the strategy of wearing someone down with numerous small irritations". In fact, Cold War is a period of history that encompassed many strategies, the major ones being first contaiment, and then arms race. Nothing to do with wearing each other down with small irritations. Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 6:09

Filibuster A filibuster is a parliamentary procedure where debate over a proposed piece of legislation is extended, allowing one or more members to delay or entirely prevent a vote on the proposal. It is sometimes referred to as "talking out a bill" or "talking a bill to death"[1] and characterized as a form of obstruction in a legislature or other decision-making body. The English term "filibuster" is derived from the Spanish filibustero, itself deriving originally from the Dutch vrijbuiter, "privateer, pirate, robber" (also the root of English "freebooter"[2]). The Spanish form entered the English language in the 1850s, as applied to military adventurers from the United States then operating in Central America and the Spanish West Indies such as William Walker.[3][4]

(The above text lifted verbatim from Wikipedia.)

  • 1
    Welcome to English Language & Usage Stack Exchange.  Yes, this is in the right ballpark, but I believe that it’s not a correct answer to the question.  Filibustering (as you clearly understand) is an obstructionist tactic, used to prevent an adversary from doing anything.  The question is asking for a coercive technique, used to persuade or pressure the victim into acquiescing to the aggressor’s point of view.  But nice work on the etymology and history — assuming that your references support your assertions.  … (Cont’d) Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 18:53
  • (Cont’d) …  P.S. If you intend to provide references/links in your answer, then provide them, and don’t just pretend to.  (Since you’re a new user, you may be limited to posting only two hyperlinks in an answer, but if you leave the others in there as plain text, somebody will probably convert them for you.) Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 18:53

Nihil Carborundum Illigitimati in Latin expresses my submission

Don't let the bastards wear you down and get on your nerves.

  • 1
    It works with downvotes from grumpy people too. : )
    – Stan
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 23:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.