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I am looking for a fancy expression to describe people who have no idea what they are doing.

I have a semi-proverb in my mind, but I cannot recall its origins (in particular, I don't think it is English). It essentially translates to:

These morons went to war with a wooden sword.

This supposed to be a (bit sarcastic) metaphor, describing some kind of situation, where the wooden sword represents unpreparedness and/or lack of skills. Those saying this proverb are very well aware of that these people were incompetent (as shown by the morons part).

Is there something similar in English?


Edit: Your idiom has been modernized to "brought a knife to a gunfight". Usually used to describe an event after the fact, though, not as a general description of a person's character. – as @Phil Sweet kindly noted in an earlier comment.


Related, but not a duplicate: Is there another word for unpreparedness?

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    Well, on the theme of swordsmen, there’s the classic “couldn't get laid in a whorehouse”. Insulting in multiple ways.
    – user205876
    Mar 10, 2020 at 22:22

16 Answers 16

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Not know your arse from your elbowCambridge

offensive To be stupid and unable to understand very simple things

Not be able to do something to save your lifeMacmillan

to be very bad at doing something
"She couldn’t play the piano to save her life!"

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Couldn't organize a piss-up in a breweryCambridge

UK, offensive Said about someone who is completely unable to organize things

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    Nice, I have never heard of it. Although I am afraid this is a proverb related to organizing skills.
    – Matsmath
    Aug 22, 2016 at 14:13
  • As @Matsmath said, to me this describes someone who is disorganised, rather than general incompetence.
    – Ellis
    Aug 23, 2016 at 9:50
  • I give the task of organising a piss up in a brewery to all new managers. Rarely am I impressed...
    – user108066
    Aug 23, 2016 at 11:29
  • Couldn't organise a root in a knocking shop.
    – Jeremy
    Aug 23, 2016 at 14:37
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Couldn't pour water from a boot (if the instructions were on the heel) - TheFreeDictionary

Stupid.

Anecdotally, I've also heard piss instead of water, if you're feeling somewhat more vulgar.

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    This particular phrase was a favorite of former United States president Lyndon B. Johnson. In the most well-known quotation, he's referring to the Organization of American States. Of course, he always used the vulgar form, and that's what I've heard most frequently as well. I think "water" is a less vulgar substitution, rather than the other way around. Aug 23, 2016 at 8:16
  • @CodyGray, indeed, whilst writing the answer I was looking for citations for "piss", but it seems like all the dictionaries prefer water.
    – ymbirtt
    Aug 23, 2016 at 8:19
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You could say they brought a knife to a gunfightWiktionary

To enter into a confrontation or other challenging situation without being adequately equipped or prepared.

This comes from the movie The Untouchables (1987):

"Leave it to a Wop to bring a knife to a gunfight."

A list of films, books and newspapers that use such a line can be seen on Movies & TV Stack Exchange

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Since going to war (even with wooden swords!) requires leaders and followers (generals and grunts), what you describe is a case of

the blind leading the blind.

I'm not sure, but I think Jesus may have been to first to nail this expression in the Gospel According to Matthew:

  • Matthew 15:14 - "Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

  • Matthew 23:16 - “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’"

  • Matthew 23:24 - "You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"

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Couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat.

Not sure about the original source. It is used in the movie dodgeball.

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3

If you want to be vulgar...

He doesn't know shit from shinola. Someone who is so incompetent that he mistakes feces for shoe polish.

or

He doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground Someone so incompetent that he can't... well you get the idea.

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There are several common phrases in the forms:

  • 'wouldn't know (x) if (y)' - e.g. "this moron wouldn't know a sword if it hit him in the face"
  • 'couldn't tell (x) from (y)' - e.g. "this moron couldn't tell a sword from a suitcase".

Meaning they are so clueless about a topic that they wouldn't recognize something relevant to the topic even if it was very clearly presented to them, or that they couldn't make a correct choice about the topic when presented with a very obvious choice.

While it's not a single idiom like "going to war with wooden swords", you can put different words in the same format to make it relevant to your specific situation - and as amusing comparison as you want. Relevant other answer: 'wouldn't know (x) if (y)'.

It's related to @NVZ's suggested 'Not know your arse from your elbow', but that is the same idiom all the time, and 'wouldn't know x from y' is usually tailored to each situation.

The second form is a generalization on @barbecue's suggestion 'wouldn't know shit from Shinola' (as a UK English speaker, I don't recognize 'Shinola', but I understood the sentence from the format).

Usually in 'wouldn't know (x) if (y)', the (y) is something violent or attention grabbing ('if it hit them in the face', and 'if it bit them on the nose' are common). In 'tell (x) from (y)' the (x) is related to the topic and (y) is as strange and bizarre as you can think of, maybe alliterative with (x).

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One phrase that has been and continues to be widely used in the United States to describe someone who is unprepared for a particular challenge but who has nevertheless taken it on—very much in line with your original phrase "went to war with a wooden sword" and also to james turner's suggestion "brought a knife to a gunfight" is this simile:

like a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest

Google Books finds a slightly euphemistic variant of this expression from February 1980 in Skiing magazine:

And the chaffing is merciless. Hoots and jeers follow every tumble, however awful, and the insults are continuous and general:

"You look like a one-legged man in a tail-kicking contest."

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  • I have always heard this as an idiom for busyness, never for incompetence.
    – cobaltduck
    Aug 31, 2016 at 19:33
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As much use as a chocolate teapot ( or fireguard )

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    Hi, welcome to ELU.SE. Could you include some sources to your answer, similarly to other answerers? Please also look around in the help center.
    – Matsmath
    Aug 22, 2016 at 16:39
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Tieing in to your martial theme, "Able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" springs to mind. This is, of course, a reversal of "snatching victory from the jaws of defeat", which originated during the Mexican-American War, and was used as little as six weeks ago by the the Washington Post in reporting on Donald Trump

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"He's dumber than a hundred head of sheep."

Usage examples from Google Books: 1, 2

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In the reverse of your idiom, soldiers who have all the swords and armor you could want, but they are so clueless that the right tools will not make any difference and won't win, could be said to have: "all the gear, no idea".

Often used for clueless people with a hobby that requires expensive equipment - e.g. used around the internet to describe golfers; cyclists; music recording; a self-depracating blog title for a hill walker; ski resort tourists but could apply to professionals who turned up to do a job and "had all the gear, but no idea".

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"...has a screw loose" (screw delah)
My friends from Mumbai use this phrase usually (but not exclusively) for someone who is incompetent or out of touch with the consensus reality. It's a bit more polite than some of the others mentioned here.

From Cambridge English Dictionary:

If you say that someone has a screw loose, you mean that they behave in a strange way and seem slightly mentally ill.

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"As useful as tits on a bull."

Often shortened to "Tits on a bull."

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To be as much use as a chocolate kettle/fireguard.

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