Is there a word or phrase that describes a situation where you are intentionally offering something to someone who can't attain it?

Example: I'll give you my seat for a million dollars.

  • 1
    "dangling something over your head" Mar 27, 2017 at 14:40
  • 1
    Not a direct answer, but I will note that this scenario is literally the same one as for the expression "sour grapes".
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 31, 2017 at 20:46
  • For most people, a chair in exchange for a million dollars doesn't represent an offer that is "just out of reach". It is unobtainable or might as well be. Apr 1, 2017 at 0:57

3 Answers 3


Look up tantalize. It is defined at Oxford dictionary as

Torment or tease (someone) with the sight or promise of something that is unobtainable.

  • 2
    It derives from Tantalus, a character in Greek mythology who was consigned to Tartarus, a place of suffering for the wicked after death, where "he was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink", so that he could never slake his hunger nor thirst.
    – moonpoint
    Mar 26, 2017 at 20:00
  • 1
    I'm not sure this is quite accurate, at least not given the example OP used. It is a great word for "tease", though.
    – user210771
    Mar 27, 2017 at 3:02
  • @C.M Weimer, see also the definition for tantalize at dictionary.com: "to torment with, or as if with, the sight of something desired but out of reach; tease by arousing expectations that are repeatedly disappointed."
    – moonpoint
    Mar 28, 2017 at 16:53
  • @moonpoint Yeah, that's something like "tease." I'm just not sure that OP's example really meant that. But that might just be a bad example.
    – user210771
    Mar 28, 2017 at 18:24

Many writers have referred to...

(dangling) a mythical carrot

...but when I stop to think about it, I'm pretty sure the donkey - carrot - stick reference isn't to some kind of mythical fairy tale. I'm sure you really can get a donkey to traipse round a treadmill all day if you hang a real (non-mythical) carrot off a stick, just in front of him.

So that carrot can't be exactly "mythical" (besides which, if the realworld treadmill donkey never got a carrot, I'm sure he'd give up after a while; donkeys aren't that dumb). But it has been used.

  • 6
    Yeah, mythical is definitely the wrong adjective here. "Proverbial" would be more appropriate.
    – Dancrumb
    Mar 26, 2017 at 20:19
  • 1
    This is commonly phrased as "carrot on a stick".
    – user221615
    Mar 27, 2017 at 4:14
  • 2
    @Dancrumb: But as I tried to point out, the proverbial carrot is an inducement/bribe that's not only offered - it's usually delivered, sooner or later. By contrast, a mythical carrot can be quite naturally understood as something which might appear tempting, but you ain't never gonna get it! Mar 27, 2017 at 13:09
  • 2
    @vickyace: I can get a bit irritated when people post answers with (sometimes multiple) images that don't really add anything to the text (i.e. - they're just "attention grabbers"). In this specific case I'm open-minded as to whether including that pic would enhance, detract, or not make much difference. Perhaps you'd like to raise the matter on meta, and maybe cite this answer as one where you'd like to know whether the majority of ELU users think a picture could be worth more than my [considerably less than a thousand] words! Seriously - I'd be interested to know too. :) Apr 1, 2017 at 16:44
  • 1
    Whoa! You just lighted the light bulb in my head. I am always scared when it comes to posting stuff on meta but that donkey in the photo is too cute to be left out. I'll fight for him.
    – vickyace
    Apr 1, 2017 at 17:11

Ask for the moon is an idiom meaning to ask for something that is unobtainable.

He may as well have asked me for the moon. I was never going to get that chair.

This is related to other moon idioms: Promise the moon: to offer something that's impossible.

Right now I'm so tired that I would promise the moon to be able to sit in that chair!

Cry at/for the moon: make an outlandish or unreasonable request, especially one that is unlikely to be fulfilled.

If he thinks he can get out of that chair, he's crying at the moon.

(Idioms from The Free Dictionary)

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.