Are there any phrases like "Couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery" or "Couldn't organise a root in a brothel" that are reasonably common, indicate organisational incompetence, have a degree of irony (as opposed to "Couldn't run a chook raffle", or answers to the more general question Is there a proverb or idiom describing incompetence?) and aren't vulgar?

Wiktionary suggests couldn't organise a bun fight in a bakery, and while it does appear in real life (example: Brisbane port ready for naval expansion), it doesn't appear to be common. Are there any that are non-vulgar and are more common?

Related, but not as specific in its requirements: Is there a proverb or idiom describing incompetence?


4 Answers 4


An Elephind search turns up a number of relatively mild yet colorful antecedents to the more vulgar "couldn't organize an X in a Y" expressions that Andrew Grimm mentions.

From "The Banana Busisiness," in the [Washington, D.C.] Evening Times (April 15, 1899), reprinted from the New Orleans [Louisiana] Times-Democrat:

Why, the Chinese banana growers of Bocas couldn't organize a flatboat.

From an untitled item in the [McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania] Fulton County News (June 21, 1905), reprinted over the ensuing month in newspapers in Virginia and Washington State:

Men who couldn't organize a peanut stand know just how the pastor should run the church.

From Frank Crane, "Recognize Mexico," in the [Roanoke, Virginia] World News (June 8, 1922):

About the time of de la Huerta's visit, a revolution was staged under the leadership of Felix Diaz. Diaz is a toothless has-been, and couldn't organize a revolution in a chicken coop.

From Lemuel Parton, "Dollars Will Go Swiftly During Approaching Political Campaign Despite Huge Sums to Be Raised," in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (July 25, 1928):

Some of them are experienced political workers who know how to organize a district; others are out-moded and broken-down politicians who couldn't organize a game of horseshoes and still others are confidence men who are accustomed to selling political prestige which they do not possess.

Expressions that appear in newspapers from the 1970s and later include the following:

couldn’t organize a two-car funeral Golden [Colorado] Transcript (April 7, 1972)

couldn't organize a box lunch [Denver, Colorado] Paper (August 2, 1972)

couldn’t organize a procession to the bathroom [Denver Colorado] Fourth Estate (April 10, 1974)

couldn’t organize a one-car funeral Santa Cruz [California] Sentinel (May 7, 1981)

couldn't organize a rock to fall off a cliff Canadian [Texas] Record (August 1, 2002)

couldn't organize a bake sale Coronado [California] Eagle and Journal (December 3, 2008)

Google Books search delivers a number of additional possibilities, going back to 1915:

couldn't organize a clambake Trumbull Electric Manufacturing Co., Trumbull Cheer (1915)

couldn't organize a bunch of tom-cats around a bowl of milk International Woodworkers of America, Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention (1939)

couldn't organize a game of slapjack Paul Bonner, Excelsior (1955)

couldn't organize a crap game William Brammer, The Gay Place (1961)

I have encountered the "game of horseshoes," "bake sale," and "one-car [or two-car] funeral" variants of organizational haplessness over the years; but for fidelity to the form that Andrew Grimm is most interested in, "couldn't organize a revolution in a chicken coop" is pretty hard to beat.

  • Most of these examples do not follow the "an X in a Y" formula that the OP asked for. Lots of good examples of organisational incompetence, but few actually relevant.
    – nnnnnn
    Aug 22, 2020 at 7:36

Wiktionary also suggests couldn't pour water out of a boot which does sound less vulgar that the others options.

Alternative form:

couldn't pour water out of a boot with the instructions on the heel.

(Synonym of couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery)

  • This isn't quite the same, though: it doesn't describe organizational incompetence in the way that the examples in the question do. I did get a chuckle out of the alternative form, though.
    – Ryan M
    Aug 22, 2020 at 1:30

"He couldn't organize his way out of a wet paper bag."

I am the organizer in my house, but I am also the breadwinner, so my husband does the schooling. He couldn't organize his way out of a wet paper bag without a manual. (I love him, but he is the archeotype of an artist)


It's obviously a bit casual, but if you Google "organize""out of a wet paper bag", you find countless examples buried in forums and video comments.

Good afternoon, please could someone help me with this phrase? I cannot understand its meaning.

Entrepreneurs are obsessed with freedom... and have an enormous work ethic," she says. But she concedes: "We couldn't organise ourselves out of a paper bag!"

discussion here - https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/out-of-a-paper-bag.28317/


Another slightly more pointed way is to say "As much use as".


John Smith was so dimwitted that he was said to be as much use as a chocolate teapot.


"as an ashtray on a motorbike"


"as teats on a bull"

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