We have a proverb in my language: "Make the jacket to the button". I'm looking for the equivalent in English.
The meaning of the proverb is:

  • A tiny part of job is already done. It turns out that the rest of the job can only be done with a significant compromise due to the way the tiny part was done. We use the proverb for the approach that the tiny part should not be reworked and the compromise should be accepted resulting a poorer outcome overall.
  • A real life example: You want to build a bike path through a park. In the same time you decide to call a gardening team to maintain the plants in the park. Since the construction workers can't work because of the gardening team you decide to build the bike path around the park instead of waiting for them to finish. You made the jacket to the button.
  • Less of a proverb than a common saying, but "[You have to] work with what you've got" is very common, and achieves the same meaning.
    – Freddie R
    May 9, 2019 at 19:44
  • What's the original?
    – KarlG
    May 10, 2019 at 10:32

2 Answers 2


There is the similar proverb

cut your coat according to your cloth

The Oxford Dictionaries says this:

Undertake only what you have the money or ability to do and no more.

with the example

In terms of the other two options, we have to cut our coat according to our cloth.

  • Is this answer wrong? Perhaps the hit-and-run downvoter would care to explain. May 11, 2019 at 11:07
  • This doesn't seem to match the meaning explained in the OP.
    – IanF1
    May 11, 2019 at 17:13

If you want to call attention to the reversal of priorities, you could say it is a case of the tail wagging the dog: the primary concern or objective of something has been made subsidiary to something that is relatively minor or should be dependent on it.

As a metaphor it has probably existed for some time, but as an idiom, the OED attests to it only from 1935, in the letters of no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Phrase Finder entry traces it to the 1870s, but it does not appear in print outside the U.S. until the mid-20th century.

To put the cart before the horse similarly indicates that things are reversed from their proper or natural order, though I tend to use this more when referring to a sequence of actions as opposed to a ranking of priorities or importance. Buying a set of race tires before I buy a new car would be putting the cart before the horse. Choosing a new car based on whether those tires will fit or not is the tail wagging the dog.

If you want to emphasize that you are forced to work in a certain way because of circumstances you cannot change, you must play the hand you are dealt. This is a reference to card games where you cannot exchange your cards in the hope of receiving better ones, but instead strategize how to make the most of the situation you are given.

There are different ways this saying can be interpreted, however. On the one hand, it can be a call to focus on practical solutions rather than wasting time with wishful thinking. It might also be call to recognize and stay within one's limitations, like don't bite off more than you can chew, or cut your coat according to your cloth. In this line, however, it can also be perceived as dismissing efforts to improve, reform, or correct injustice.

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