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An Albanian friend of mine asked me a bit of a puzzler: What would be the English equivalent of the Albanian idiom "Let my cow die should my neighbor's two cows die"?

Figuratively translated, it means that what is bad for you must be good for me.

I haven't been able to find any idiomatic expression that quiet expresses that sentiment.

Is there an equivalent expression?

EDIT: To clarify a little, I believe the intent behind the figurative meaning is "I will see benefit in your loss whether I lose or not"

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    Well, that's the Balkans for you. :-P – Mick Dec 5 '16 at 21:12
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    Your literal translation sounds more like an expression of spite -- that you are willing to suffer just for the pleasure of ensuring the other guy suffers more. Your figurative translation expresses a fairly different sentiment; that you benefit from another's loss. Can you clarify whether it's the figurative translation you want an idiom for, or that you're looking for something that retains the nature of your literal translation? – user66219 Dec 6 '16 at 0:11
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    Need further clarification as to what the intended meaning is. The idiomatic expression and the figurative translation provided don't go together in English. Which are we looking for? Something that means "I benefit if you lose" or something that means "I am willing to take a loss if your loss is greater", or maybe "If I can hurt you by hurting myself I will do it?" – barbecue Dec 6 '16 at 0:53
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    Zero-sum game. – Iwillnotexist Idonotexist Dec 6 '16 at 6:21
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    It's not an idiom, but would the loanword schadenfreude be close in meaning? – FirstLastname Dec 6 '16 at 16:16

13 Answers 13

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I think "your death, my life" from Latin "mors tua, vita mea" may convey the idea :

  • There is a Latin expression that reads "Mors tua vita mea" which is the law of the jungle. This prevails at every level in this fallen world. It seems to be ancient in origin, meaning "Your death, my life" (or: your death (is) my life). Beyond the dramatic tone of the literal sense, this term is used when within a competition, there can be only one winner. It indicates that that failure of one person is a prerequisite for the success of another.

(oldwaldensianpaths.blogspot.it)

38

We do have an idiom for this, but it's not sure it's an exact match:

One man's loss is another man's gain (Camb)

when someone gets an advantage from someone else's bad luck

You could use this in a situation where you're waiting in line somewhere, and just as the person in front of you gets to the front of the line, they have a problem that requires them to give up their turn.

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    There is also "One man's meat is another man's poison." Very similar in meaning. – Mick Dec 5 '16 at 21:33
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    Yes. Your loss is my gain, in the terms of the question. – Drew Dec 5 '16 at 22:53
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    This doesn't fit (like most of the answers). If your neighbor loses 2 cows, and you lose one cow, you have a net loss of one cow. – Laurel Dec 5 '16 at 23:19
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    @Laurel most people are going off of OP's figurative translation. Understandable, since a literal idiom might not always be the right interpretation. Not saying you're wrong that we're wrong, though. – FirstLastname Dec 6 '16 at 1:07
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    @Mick Or if you're French, or have Gallic-leanings, why not "one man's meat is another man's 'poisson'? Mick, does sound sufficiently fishy to you? – Peter Point Dec 6 '16 at 3:32
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A somewhat similar idiom:

cut off your nose to spite your face

to hurt yourself in an effort to punish someone else If you stay home because your ex-husband will be at the party, aren't you just cutting off your nose to spite your face?

to do something because you are angry, even if it will cause trouble for you 'The next time he treats me like that, I'm just going to quit my job.' 'Isn't that a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face?'

To injure oneself in taking revenge against another.

http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/cut+off+nose+to+spite+face

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    This answer sort of matches the original expression provided by the OP, but doesn't have the same meaning he's asking for. – barbecue Dec 6 '16 at 0:50
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    These comments (not to mention downvotes) are rather silly. One doesn't need to speak Albanian to know that OP's "figurative translation" is wide off the mark. So far, the above is closest to the quoted idiom of all the answers posted, since it's the only one expressing the willingness to endure a loss in order to damage an enemy. – michael.hor257k Dec 6 '16 at 1:39
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    +1 it's the closest thing I can think of, but this expression doesn't have the spirit of the Albanian one, whereas this one is an accusation of something one shouldn't do, the OP's version seems to take pride in doing it. i.e. "I would cut off my nose to spite my face" – colmde Dec 6 '16 at 9:06
  • @colmde My impression is that the Albanian saying is just as sarcastic as this one. – michael.hor257k Dec 6 '16 at 12:17
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    I had thought of "cut off your nose to spite your face" but thought that it was more of a self-damaging idiom. As this was described to me, the person is essentially saying that, no matter what, I will always view what is bad for you as good for me whether the end result is actually good for me or not. – idiot3qu3 Dec 6 '16 at 13:07
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The important thing that the other answers are missing is that it's a negative sum game, to use game theory terms. If your neighbor loses two cows, and you get one cow, you have still lost a cow.

It's sometimes referred to as winning by losing less:

In January Rout, Hedge Funds ‘Win’ by Losing Less Than Stocks

Source

You could also call it a tactical victory, by one definition of the phrase. According to Wikipedia:

a victory where the losses of the defeated outweigh those of the victor.

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    A particularly rough case of a tactical victory is a pyrrhic one. – Papayaman1000 Dec 6 '16 at 0:52
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Maybe "one man's trash is another man's treasure"? It feels similar in meaning, although it refers to possessions instead of events.

  • And one might rehash trash & treasure as " where's the muck, there's brass"! (Best uttered in a broad Yorkshire accent). – Peter Point Dec 6 '16 at 3:09
  • @PeterPoint wouldn't that be more like "diamond in the rough"? – FirstLastname Dec 6 '16 at 4:03
  • Evidently this going to be a replay of the War of the Roses. Though not a denizen myself, I happen to believe in the old saying that a Yorkshire-man is God's finest creation, but concede that a Lancastrian will run them a close second. – Peter Point Dec 6 '16 at 4:46
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The enemy of my enemy is my friend

Wikipedia says :

ancient proverb which suggests that two opposing parties can or should work together against a common enemy

I think it it could be read as saying expressing a sentiment that what is bad for my enemy is good for me.

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    I had also thought of that expression, but wasn't sure if it quite fit. I guess if you take it as the intention of the enemy of my enemy is favorable to me, then it kinda works. It just doesn't roll of the tongue. :-) – idiot3qu3 Dec 6 '16 at 13:09
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    @idiot3qu3 Agreed; I was going by the OP's figurative translation, what is bad for you must be good for me but my answer is not perfect for the literal Albanian idiom. As another commented said, the show texts don't really match up perfectly so this question seems a too vague and perhaps is too unclear to be answered well! – k1eran Dec 6 '16 at 15:27
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If I understand the expression correctly, it might be paraphrased as "I don't mind if one of my cows dies as long as two of my neighbors' cows die." If that's right, then I don't think English has a corresponding expression.

There is a related expression, "beggar thy neighbor", where "beggar" is used as a verb, meaning to impoverish. A country might be accused of using beggar-thy-neighbor policies, for instance. But it's obviously not equivalent.

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It couldn’t really be used in place of the example, but English has an idiom for this kind of situation:

Zero-sum game

From Investopedia:

Zero-sum is a situation in game theory in which one person's gain is equivalent to another's loss, so the net change in wealth or benefit is zero.

(I have no idea how reliable this source is in general, but I liked their definition much better than Wikipedia’s for this purpose.)

In a zero-sum situation, you cannot gain without someone else losing—and you also cannot lose without someone else gaining. If there are only two players, then if the other player loses, you gain what they have lost.

This leads to the concept of zero-sum mentality the (inaccurate) belief or feeling that all things in life are zero-sum and there is no way to get ahead except by tearing down others.

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Ths closest match I could find in English is "misery loves company". It may still be a rather euphemistic version of what you want.

TFD:

Misery loves company.
Prov. Unhappy people like other people to be unhappy too.
Jill: Why is Linda criticizing everybody today?
Jane: Her boss criticized her this morning, and misery loves company.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

misery loves company
Fellow sufferers make unhappiness easier to bear.
She secretly hoped her friend would fail, too - misery loves company.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Copyright © 2003, 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Wiktionary:

misery loves company
Misery is easier to bear when one is not the only one miserable.

1995, Chris Abbott, “State of Flux”, season 1 episode 11 of Star Trek: Voyager:
Tuvok: [It is curious] That my failure, added to your own, should improve your feelings.
Chakotay: Misery loves company, Tuvok.

  • Dear downvoter, would you care to let me know why you did not like this answer? To me, this is the closest answer (most other answers actually missed the point), so it's both surprising and amusing that it's downvoted. – alwayslearning Dec 7 '16 at 13:54
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There is a similar idiom in: "It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good."

This is interpreted as "unless it is very bad news indeed, somebody will benefit." It is less personal, but covers similar ground.

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What's good for the Goose is not good for the Gander.

Or something like that.

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If I get it right, then the proverb means "I don't mind suffering some damage from some unforeseeable circumstance, as long as my neighbour, who is neither my friend nor my enemy, suffers more damage for the same reason". So the knowledge about someone else's suffering more than compensates for your own damage.

There is to my knowledge no British saying that would match this. The whole attitude behind it would be considered totally weird. Sure, there are people who hate their neighbours and wouldn't mind causing them damage (even with negative consequences for themselves), but that's not the same thing. Sure, there are people who are gloating when their neighbours suffer, but not at the price of suffering themselves. There are plenty of people who don't mind gaining from someone else's sufferings, but that's not the same either, since the person is suffering themselves.

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The phrase I think you are looking for is "One man's meat is another man's poison"

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    Welcome to English Language & Usage! We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed. – NVZ Dec 6 '16 at 16:03

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