I'm trying to find an idiom for a poor substitute. One that comes to mind is Mark Twain's purported remark: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I’m looking to describe something that intrinsically falls short – not a failing of someone or something in a particular instance. The metaphor should mention two persons or objects (like lightning and lightning bug), one of which falls almost ludicrously short.

Are there other, colorful metaphors that carry this meaning?

  • 1
    I just thought of "the difference between sex and masturbation", which is a bit too colorful for my purposes. Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 14:50
  • Like driving to town in a "Rolls Canardly". Rolls = Rolls Royce; There was never a model called a Canardly - but jesters say it means rolls down the hill and can 'ardly get up again.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 15:07
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    Possible duplicate of Idiom for trying and failing, falling short and being disapproved Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 16:38
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    I've no apt pairs to offer but as for structure, you could use -- “It’s like getting {X} when you really wanted/asked for {XXX}” -- with just about any pair of related but different things (even the one you mention above!). (But beware that some of the linked examples are expressing situational irony & that someone, just as Alanis does herself near the end of this parody, will surely feel the need to debate the true meaning of “irony.”)
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 22:12
  • For example: "It's like getting a [crappy] comment when I asked for a [good] answer" = "Comments are poor substitutes for answers."
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 22:16

8 Answers 8


You could use the term poor man's whatever, which means:

Cheaper than, simpler than, or inferior to.

Often used to describe a free or cheap alternative to a commodity.

This is an excerpt from Wiktionary's "poor man's" entry and used under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 License.

This is sometimes used in the form of X is the poor man's Y. Here are some exemplary sentences from the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd Ed.

He was only ever a mediocre singer - they used to call him 'the poor man's Frank Sinatra'.

'So what did you think of the film?' 'It was just a poor man's 'Pulp Fiction'.'


Ersatz was used (as a noun) during wartime (certainly in North America, probably on the other side) to describe edibles (such as coffee made with chicory) that were poor replacements for what normally would be available.

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    I would say that's much more common as an adjective than as a noun.
    – Nicole
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 23:09

A sorry/pathetic/poor/sad excuse for something:

someone or something that is of very bad quality

Examples of usage:

  • This is a sad excuse for a rental car.
  • He's a pathetic excuse for a catcher.
  • This is a poor excuse for a Pilsner.
  • This is a sorry excuse for an answer.

This is a little bit out there, but I'll give it try.

I first heard the following saying from a colleague. When I tried to determine its origin a few minutes ago, I found numerous links and images, including one site that attributed it to UNKNOWN.

I'd rather choke on greatness than nibble on mediocrity.

I read this as meaning mediocrity is a poor substitute for greatness.


The phrase

That’s like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

refers to being inadequately prepared for a situation, or giving an inadequate response to a situation.  It is generally credited as being derived from a line in the movie The Untouchables.

If you’re interested in similarly worded phrases that have radically different meanings (but not related to something being a poor substitute for something else), then you might enjoy this conversation from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter.  “You might just as well say that I see what I eat is the same thing as I eat what I see!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that I like what I get is the same thing as I get what I like!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that I breathe when I sleep is the same thing as I sleep when I breathe!”

... which is discussed here and here.


make do

Cambridge Dictionary:

make do

to manage to live without things that you would like to have or with things of a worse quality than you would like:

We didn't have cupboards so we made do with boxes.


How about knock-off?

knock-off: an unlicensed copy of something, especially fashion clothing, intended to be sold at a lower price than the original.

Knock-off items are poor substitutes for the originals.


Off the top of head I could come up with this—

not a patch on

greatly inferior to.

He no longer looked so handsome—he wasn't a patch on Peter.

You could also use this one— Rubber stamp (alluding to the imprint-making property of rubber stamps, and could thus be extended metaphorically to signify unoriginality), and defined by Merriam-Webster as:

a mostly powerless yet officially recognized body or person that approves or endorses programs and policies initiated usually by a single specified source

an author who was ultimately just another rubber stamp of Hemingway.

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