42

I’m looking for the English equivalent to the German expression: Wasch mich, aber mach mich nicht nass (Wash me, but don’t make me wet!).

It can be used and interpreted in various ways, but it is typically employed as a stand-alone derogatory comment to malign people who want the advantages of a situation (including holding the moral high ground) as long as they do not suffer any personal disadvantages. Below are four recent examples found on the websites of German newspapers. I have paraphrased them in English and anonymised them.

So, Frau X is a member of the Green party and campaigned for the closure of nuclear power stations. But last week she joined a demonstration to protest about the siting of a wind turbine in the field where she walks her dog. Wash me but don’t make me wet!

So, country Y is happy to benefit from EU funding but not prepared to abide by decisions democratically made by the EU parliament. Wash me but don’t make me wet!

So, Frau Q is a minister in the left-wing party that campaigns for comprehensive public education, but she has just registered her daughter at a private school. Wash me but don’t make me wet!

So, Herr Z is a member of the right-wing party that agitates against migrants, but he has employed a refugee to clean for him. Wash me but don’t make me wet!

There is a discussion of the expression on the Leo dictionary site at: https://dict.leo.org/forum/viewUnsolvedquery.php?idThread=672587

The suggestions there include "Make me an omelette, but don’t break any eggs!" and "Let me eat my cake and still have it". The best I can come up with is the single word:

Hypocrite!

Does anyone have any other suggestions?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Feb 5 '18 at 15:48
25

I would use a mixture of three different idioms in the examples you've given. Precisely, I'd translate them like this:

So, Frau X is a member of the Green party and campaigned for the closure of nuclear power stations. But last week she joined a demonstration to protest about the siting of a wind turbine in the field where she walks her dog. She wants to have her cake and eat it too.

So, country Y is happy to benefit from EU funding but not prepared to abide by decisions democratically made by the EU parliament. They want the milk without buying the cow.

So, Frau Q is a minister in the left-wing party that campaigns for comprehensive public education, but she has just registered her daughter at a private school. It's a case of "Do as I say, not as I do.".

So, Herr Z is a member of the right-wing party that agitates against migrants, but he has employed a refugee to clean for him. It's a case of "Do as I say, not as I do.".

Note that none of these translations is structurally quite the same as the example you showed, in which "Wash me but don’t make me wet!" was just used as a standalone sentence after the description of the behavior being commented on. I don't think we have any idiom in English that has the same meaning and is used in that manner.

Some notes on the differences in meaning between the three idioms used:

Have his cake and eat it (too)

tends to be used in reference to cases where somebody wants to achieve a combination of outcomes that is logically or practically impossible, but doesn't recognize this. It doesn't imply any hypocrisy, and can be used in situations where there is no moral component at all. Using it in reference to your Green politician, then, suggests that she is too stupid or too deluded to recognize that power must be generated somehow and that you cannot coherently oppose all different means of power generation simultaneously. (If that wasn't the characterization of her you were going for, and instead you wanted to suggest that she perfectly understood that reduced nuclear power would require more usage of other power sources, but that she wanted to make sure that other people suffered from the consequences instead of her because she is selfish, then this idiom wouldn't really apply - you might want to instead accuse her of being a NIMBY).

The cow and milk idiom in the second example is most usually seen in the form

Why buy the cow if the milk is free?

and, in that form, is typically used as advice to women not to let a man have sex with them too easily since this will eliminate the incentive for him to commit to a relationship. The key idea here is that the "milk" represents some nice-to-have benefit and "paying for the cow" represents what a responsible person would do in exchange for that benefit. The precise phrase "milk without buying the cow" is less common, but still used - see https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=%22milk+without+buying+the+cow%22.

In the case of country Y, then, the idiom implies that they are being irresponsible - that they are taking a benefit while refusing to pay the price that morally ought to come associated with it.

Finally, the idiom

Do as I say, not as I do

is used to characterize people who profess a moral ideal but then don't live by it. Your third and fourth examples fit this well (although neither of the first two do).

  • 8
    +1 for [You can't] have your cake and eat it. I've lived in the UK most of my life and have never heard of "why pay for the cow if the milk is free?" – Level River St Feb 4 '18 at 19:13
  • 1
    As an American/British hybrid, I've only heard "Why buy the cow if the milk is free?" in the context of someone unpleasant suggesting a person (almost always a woman) shouldn't have sex with another person (almost always a man) outside marriage. – T.J. Crowder Feb 5 '18 at 5:24
  • 1
    As an American in the Southeast, we use the phrase "why pay for the cow..." often in the context as supplied by T.J. Crowder. I've heard it all my life. – Billy Willoughby Feb 5 '18 at 16:46
  • 1
    @BillyWilloughby Glad to have at least one of those "unpleasant" someones that T.J. was talking about here to back me up! – Mark Amery Feb 5 '18 at 16:50
  • 1
    @DeepDeadpool ESE disagrees with you about correctness, and Googling for "have your cake and eat it" vs "eat your cake and have it" suggests that the former is around 25x more popular (according to the admittedly dubious metric of Google's claimed number of results). While your suggested ordering arguably makes the meaning clearer, in my experience it's much less commonly used. – Mark Amery Feb 5 '18 at 17:09
16

nimby (noun) ... originally acronym for 'not in my back yard'.

(plural nimbies) (disapproving, humorous)

a person who claims to be in favour of a new development or project, but objects if it is too near their home and will disturb them in some way
The nimbies were out in force against proposals for a high-speed rail link.

  • Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary 9th edition © Oxford University Press, 2015
  • 3
    PS It may be used metaphorically for various types of hypocracy. – Ross Murray Feb 3 '18 at 11:13
  • 13
    There's no sense of hypocrisy or contradiction in 'nimby' which is necessary in the German phrase. – Mitch Feb 3 '18 at 13:02
  • 3
    I think that nimby has implied hypocrisy to be fair... For example, Usually, the nimby's aren't opposed to prisons and the penal system, but are opposed to prisons built near their house... Or a power plant being built but clearly they enjoy the benefits of electricity! Without the hypocrisy they would be unlikely to protest. – RemarkLima Feb 3 '18 at 22:55
  • 6
    Nimby is too specific here. You wouldn't apply it to many of the examples in the question. – DJClayworth Feb 4 '18 at 23:06
  • 2
    No. "Nimby" only applies to objection to construction projects and things like that. It's fine for the first of the four examples, but inappropriate for all the others. It's not a good translation. – David Richerby Feb 5 '18 at 9:21
16

The popular expression as the essence of hypocrisy

Do as I say, not as I do.

first appeared in Table Talk, a 1659 posthumous work of John Seldon, criticizing the clergy for preaching moral behavior which they themselves do not observe:

Preachers say, "Do as I say, not as I do."

It lacks the paradox of the German expression, but makes up for it in brevity and strict parallel structure.

  • Thanks. It's clear from the other answers that there are various English phrase equivalents to the German expression. Your suggestion is certainly one of them, and I like the fact that it has the same imperative form as the German. – Shoe Feb 6 '18 at 11:33
11

The idiomatic expression that comes to mind is:

practise what you preach: ​

to do the things that you advise other people to do:

  • He's such a hypocrite! He never practises what he preaches.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

5

Based on your English description and examples given, I understand your German phrase to carry the idea that someone wants to hold two incompatible positions simultaneously. Here's an English equivalent:

have a foot in both camps phrase Have an interest or stake concurrently in two parties or sides. ‘He is also a farm inspector for both traditional and organic farms, and he said it was unusual to have a foot in both camps.’ - ODO

That definition doesn't bring it out strongly, but there's often an element of criticism in the use of the phrase:

have a foot in both camps to be connected to two groups with opposing interests - Cambridge Dictionary

4

Consider the idiom pay lip service (to sth.) for the insincere support of an idea, action etc.

Express approval of or support for (something) insincerely or without taking any significant action. - OD

Relevant example:

While both state and federal governments continue to pay lip service to supporting the public hospital system, they are speeding up the process of privatising health care. - OD

  • 1
    Really I think this is about the only one that is close. – Fattie Feb 4 '18 at 18:44
3

In summary:

  1. Frau X, member of the Green party, can't be against nuclear power stations and wind turbines

  2. Country Y can't be happy to benefit from generous EU funding yet refuse to comply with EU regulations.

  3. Frau Q, left-wing minister, can't support comprehensive public education, and enroll her daughter at a private school.

In all the scenarios there are at least two possible interpretations:

  1. (a) Frau X is selfish and a hypocrite because she wants to be able to walk her dogs in a field without wind turbines.
    (b) She wants to conserve the natural beauty of the field, in which case she is coherent in her beliefs and a protector for the conservation of the environment.

  2. (a) Country Y is a hypocrite because it happily accepts EU funds but does not want to comply with EU's regulations that will effect its country.
    (b) The government of country Y is looking after and protecting the best interests of their citizens. In which case, the government is a staunch protectionist

  3. (a) Frau Q, a liberal, is a hypocrite because she defends and openly supports the public state school (for the working class) but sends her child to an elite and financially prohibitive private school. In the UK she would be called a champagne socialist
    (b) Frau Q believes in freedom of choice, in which case she is a libertarian and, ironically, a conservative

Hypocrite works well when there is a conflict of beliefs, and ideals but if the OP is looking for a short phrase that illustrates the concept that you can't always get what you want without compromise, I would suggest

you can't have it both ways

  • Countries cannot have it both ways: the cost of a cleaner environment may sometimes be fewer jobs in dirty industries.
  • Make up your mind, you can't have it both ways.
    Collins Dictionary
  • Thanks. This is an interesting analysis of how the various situations can be interpreted. It's clear from the other suggestions here that there is no English equivalent which does all the jobs that the German expression can do. – Shoe Feb 6 '18 at 11:38
2

This is mentioned in some other answers, but to make it clear the absolute most common English phrase (from my experience in the US) that would apply to this situation is

Have your cake and eat it too

usually in the form "You can't have your cake..." or "You want to have your cake..." The meaning doesn't quite align perfectly though. This phrase broadly applies when somebody wants two things that contradict each other, which can be applied to "I want [good thing], but I also want [none of the costs]," but some of the other answers have options that more closely follow the "I want [good thing] without [inherent costs]".

That said, I stand by "have your cake and eat it too" as the most recognizable option, and I also think it can easily be substituted without modification in all the examples provided (i.e. adding "You can't have your cake and eat it too!" as a separate sentence after a scenario is described, to point out someone's hypocritical behavior).

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.