There is an idiom in Indian languages :

There is no use washing the skin of a dead rat for even a year

The idiom means a foolish person or thing can not become useful even if we try to mend them for a long time

I would like to have an almost equal idiom in English

It is not a duplicate because the idiom considers to be equivalent to be mine does not even nearly mean the same.The meaning is totally different.

Washing the skin of a dead rat means trying to make something good for too long when the thing brought for mending is useless even in the begenning.It was really foolish to start it and continue to make it useful all the more foolish.

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    Possible duplicate of Idiom that means trying to save something that is beyond saving
    – Laurel
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 0:37
  • It is not at all a duplicate.That is why we are getting more answers. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 2:34
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    I feel like @deadrat should be the one to answer this. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 8:29
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    "Like combing a giraffe." could be a good example. It refers to a task which is pointless, arduous, and likely to be quickly undone if ever completed. Even if you tried for a long time to comb a giraffe, it would not be useful. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 16:09

9 Answers 9


A very old saying comes to mind: "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" meaning it's very difficult to make a fine article out of inadequate material, or it's impossible to train a very stupid person to become the owner of a brilliant mind.

  • One cannot turn something inherently inferior into something of value. This proverbial metaphor dates from about 1500, and with some slight variation (“silk” is sometimes “velvet”) makes its way from proverb collections (by Howell, Ray, Dykes, et al.) into literature (Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, Charles Lamb, Robert Browning, George Bernard Shaw, and Clifford Odets, among others). TFD
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    The above answer seems to mean almost the same.Let us wait for some more answers. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 1:00
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    I'm English. This is the first time I've ever heard this idiom. It might be correct, but I've never heard anyone use it.
    – mungflesh
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 9:37
  • @mungflesh: I'm Irish and certainly it was used a few decades ago both in contemporary writing and the vernacular.
    – copper.hat
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 13:13
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    @mungflesh Perhaps it is regional. I grew up in West London and I knew this expression as a child 60 years ago. Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 13:30
  • In 1921, the chemist Arthur D. Little rendered a quantity of pig ears into a rayon-like thread and wove a purse from the thread. Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 21:08

A somewhat crude but memorable equivalent is:

"You can't polish a turd."

It also gives an idea of what the result would be if you could do it.

"Lipstick on a pig."

is a similar expression, but typically used in different situations, where you can do it.

The "polish" idiom is usually said when someone suggests or is about to do something that will be a waste of time. (In design, this would be when someone suggests making improvements to something that is already so fundamentally bad that it should be discarded.)

The "lipstick" idiom is usually said after something has already been improved, made to look more attractive even though what's underneath the makeup remains just as ugly as it ever was. (In marketing, this would when someone repackages the same useless product in order to increase sales.)

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    – Unrelated
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 0:55
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    Related, "lipstick on a pig". It doesn't matter how much lipstick, it's still a pig, not a beautiful woman.
    – nigel222
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 9:47
  • I've also heard "gold-plating a turd". Which might manage to look pretty, until somebody tries to use it.
    – nigel222
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 9:50
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    @nigel222 - I'm kinda confused as to what anyone would try and use a gold plated turd for... Also, your lipstick on a pig would make a good answer.
    – AndyT
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 11:28
  • @nigel222, right. I thought of that one late last night, but didn't think it worth getting up then to make the addition. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 13:35

I would choose Flogging a dead horse

"to waste effort on something when there is no chance of succeeding"

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    Although the other answers convey the futility of the effort being made, this is the only one that suggests that that effort is continuing, which makes it a better fit for the question. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 9:25
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    @bornfromanegg: yes the phrasing is closer to the original idiom, but the formerly-live horse was useful so the meaning is somewhat different. The rat in the original is intended to imply that the thing was never useful, not that it's worn-out or no-longer useful. (I think) Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 9:50
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    This is the correct answer. It's the phrase which immediately comes to mind when understanding the Indian phrase's meaning. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 9:51
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    "Flogging a dead horse" doesn't have anything to do with making quality goods from inferior materials. The intended image is that you had a perfectly good, live horse, but then you beat it to death, and you're still swinging the whip because you haven't noticed that you killed it. In modern English, it is used primarily to talk about the situation where one person is insisting on continuing an argument long after everyone else is sick of it and wants to drop the subject.
    – zwol
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 16:49
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    The US variant of this expression is beating a dead horse. Though I agree with the other answers that this isn't quite the same as the OP's expression. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 18:37

There is a very fine old proverb in English that goes like this:

Though you bray [that is, crush] a fool in a mortar, you may not drive his folly from him.

The image is of using a mortar and pestle to crush something to a fine powder, and the idea is that the fool's folly is inextricable from his being and so cannot be separated from him even with the greatest effort. The saying comes from Proverbs xxvii: 22 in the Old Testament. Bartlett Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings Mainly Before 1500 (1968) reports instances of this proverb in English sources from circa 900 and 1395. John Bunyan mentions it in "The Aceptable Sacrifice" (1688):

Solomon intimates, that it is a hard thing to make a fool become wise. 'Though thou shouldst bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him,' {Pr. xxvii. 22.}

The proverb also appears in or is alluded to in such works as Samuel Butler's Hudibras (1684), Tobias Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), and William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793). Nevertheless, it seems to be rarely used today. Bartlett Whiting, Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings (1989), which reports occurrences of proverbs from about 1900 to the early 1980s, lists only one instance of the proverb from the twentieth century—in C.E. Vulliamy, The Polderoy Papers (1943):

Bray a fool in a mortar, says the proverb, and he remains a fool.

Still, it seems to be fairly close in sense to the Indian proverb you cite, and I, for one, would welcome its return to common English usage.

  • I was reading this old post here, and I thoughT Oh, this is well-informed, well-written and interesting. Who wrote this? Lo and behold, when I got to the very end ... Commented Nov 2, 2019 at 6:13

If it's not only futile to do the thing, but increasingly foolish to continue (as in the cost of trying goes up the longer the trying goes on), I would suggest that you are "throwing good money after bad". https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/throw+good+money+after+bad The idea is that if you cut your losses now, what you've lost is all you'll lose, but if you keep trying to fix it, you'll lose much more.


not a hope TFD an idiom

little or no chance or possibility (of succeeding, coming to pass, or achieving something).

As in:

Despite valiant efforts, there is not a hope for him to become X.


From the Christian Bible, a saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:6 (and typically quoted from the KJV translation):

Cast [not] your pearls before swine

While the Wikipedia entry from the link includes a lengthy discussion of debate about the interpretation, in colloquial speech I've typically heard the phrase employed to mean, essentially

Don't waste valuable things on those who won't (or can't) appreciate them


"Throwing good money after bad" is a fairly direct example, as it means literal continued investment when it's already known the initial investment was a mistake;

Depending on the context / audience, it may be more interesting to point to the underlying psychology of the behavior: Sunk cost fallacy

Individuals commit the sunk cost fallacy when they continue a behavior or endeavor as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort) (Arkes & Blumer, 1985). This fallacy, which is related to loss aversion and status quo bias, can also be viewed as bias resulting from an ongoing commitment.

For example, individuals sometimes order too much food and then over-eat just to “get their money’s worth”. Similarly, a person may have a $20 ticket to a concert and then drive for hours through a blizzard, just because she feels that she has to attend due to having made the initial investment. If the costs outweigh the benefits, the extra costs incurred (inconvenience, time or even money) are held in a different mental account than the one associated with the ticket transaction (Thaler, 1999).


Immanuel Kant generalized the sentiment: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” You might like that quote if you don’t mean to imply that any one person in particular is uniquely hopeless.

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