I was looking for a word, a verb specifically, to describe the situation or action when a weak person challenges a stronger opponent into fight, although they know they have no chance of winning.

What verb can best be used to describe the act of a party challenging the other stronger side to fight?

For example, we can say that person A is aggressive and warmonger. But, I am looking more for a verb phrase to describe this to create a sentence like the following:

A provokes B into a fight


A solicits a fight from B.

As you see "provoke" does not connotate the concept of challenging someone stronger and bigger to a conflict. It would be good if there is verb or a phrase to describe this situation.

  • 1
    You need to provide more detail than you have about what kind of word you're looking for and how it would be used in a sentence. Jun 21, 2019 at 17:32
  • Masochism or sadism? Jun 21, 2019 at 19:19
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    Your "clarification" has turned this into a very different question.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 22, 2019 at 14:04
  • @AndrewLeach just edited and removed unnecessary details. Jun 22, 2019 at 14:08
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    Don't you think we first need to know why? In many cases, what you describe would be simply stupid. If you did it to give someone else time to escape, it might be heroic. Nov 12, 2021 at 22:25

6 Answers 6


What about poking the bear? From google (emphasis mine):

deliberately provoke or antagonize someone, especially someone more powerful than oneself.

As a noncontroversial example: "By threatening British shipping, Sealand is really poking the bear".

Another contender might be "waking the sleeping giant", from the Pearl Habor movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (spoken by Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, questioning the effectiveness of the attack):

I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.


A weak person's action of fighting stronger opponents is

punching up

To attack or target a group of greater power and/or status than oneself.

Instead of criticizing a foolhardy action like you're looking for, though, it's usually approbative:

... to critique and dismantle power structures, rather than to harm people disempowered relative to yourself

i.e., "punching down". It has the connotation of speaking truth to power and comforting the afflicted, rather than exploiting the weak, poor, and uneducated.

A related idiom from boxing is "punching above one's weight class," but it implies the smaller power is actually doing an unexpectedly good job of handling itself against the larger power.


Edit: Seeing @Zack's answer, I'll leave it out here. "Poking a/the bear" is right on the money. I'll leave in my bit about "sleeping giants" though since it has more links and the Napoleon context.

As far as countries poking at each other, a minor part or player forcing action from its superior is "the tail wagging the dog," but it's not usually foolhardy. The connotation is that the smaller power is punching above its weight class, to the point where "wagging the dog" has become political shorthand for obfuscating political issues with distracting military action. (That may be what the smaller country is doing, but it focuses attention on the misdirected domestic politics rather than the foolishness of the military action itself.)

As far as I know, the usual English idiom for a smaller power provoking a greater is some variation on Napoleon's supposed adage

China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world. (Quand la Chine s'éveillera , le monde tremblera.)

The US movie Tora! Tora! Tora! put a similar quote in the mouth of the Japanese admiral Yamamoto in reference to Pearl Harbor having kicked a beehive with the Pearl Harbor attack. (The filmmakers themselves claim it was in his diary.) The more usual forms these days involve "waking a sleeping tiger" or "lion". Game of Thrones used "wake the dragon". Online forums like "the beast".

Maybe the closest idiom to what you were getting at is

have the tiger by the tail:

To be involved with someone or something that is powerful and could become troublesome or threatening.

I don't know who had it first, but the Chinese have the much more amusing chengyu

老虎屁股摸不得 (lǎohǔ pìgu mō bù dé)

You can't pet a tiger's ass

which is in general use for everything from international relations and high finance to dealing with surly drunks and martinet teachers.

"Grabbing the tiger by the tail" makes the action much more intentional. That said, it's usually used in the context of dealing with some thorny problem and isn't usually associated with foolhardiness these days. You might be better off using a less popular equivalent ("grabbing the wolf by the ears") or just using some generic idiom for soon-to-be-violently-ended idiocy like "poking a bear with a sharp stick" or "entering a world of pain".

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    I'm surprised with all your animal metaphors, you didn't mention tickling the dragon's tail. :) Although I think that one is used more exclusively with nuclear experiments.
    – Zack
    Jun 21, 2019 at 17:36
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    Minor quibble, but I don’t think 老虎屁股摸不得 would generally be called a 成语. That term is in my experience almost exclusively used, at least in standard conversation, to refer to 四字成语, four-character phrases. This saying (at least according the link you give) originated with Mao, which also makes it much too recent to be a 成语. I think most Chinese people would call it a 名言 instead. (The intended meaning of describing someone who is conceitedly overconfident and doesn’t listen to advice or criticism is also rather different, even if the literal meaning is fairly close.) Jun 22, 2019 at 13:32

This is almost the precise definition of foolhardy.

Recklessly bold or rash.

‘it would be foolhardy to go into the scheme without support’

–Oxford via Lexico

The etymology shows its appropriateness, too:

Middle English from Old French folhardi, from fol ‘foolish’ + hardi ‘bold’ (see hardy).


  • 1
    Oh. The question asks for a verb. Oh well, I'll leave this until it's no longer useful...
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 20, 2019 at 21:31
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    Attacking a bigger opponent is foolhardy, but foolhardy doesn't mean attacking a bigger opponent. Jun 21, 2019 at 18:41
  • Andrew, this is by no means specific enough, and wasn't even before OP added the clarifications. 'Punching up' (qv) is an answer here. 'Ill-advised' etc aren't. Jun 22, 2019 at 13:25
  • The "clarification" is a completely different question.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 22, 2019 at 14:01

"To bite off more than you can chew" means "to take on more responsibility than one can handle" or "to decide or agree to do more than one can finally accomplish", according to the Free Dictionary. In this context, it would be saying that they started a fight that they were incapable of winning - e.g. "North Korea bit off more than they could chew when they started shelling Seoul and started a war with America."


pugnacious describes a person who is willing to fight for fighting's sake, even with no prospect of winning the fight


adj. Combative in nature. synonym: belligerent.

Disposed to fight; quarrelsome; given to fighting: as, a pugnacious fellow; a pugnacious disposition.

Synonyms Contentious.

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