Is there an idiom or expression in English to describe when a bad situation is not fully or correctly resolved and might happen again, perhaps with ramifications even more severe?

There's a similar expression we use in Persian. For example:

When talking about people feeling angry about the government suppressing protests rather than it addressing the issue- in Persian, we say that this situation still has 'fire under the ashes.' That is, it's still delicate and not yet fully-resolved.

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    I wonder if it would fit to say that this situation is a sword of damocles.
    – aloisdg
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 13:59
  • 1
    @aloisdgmovingtocodidact.com The sword of damocles is different. There you have an innate jeopardy, but what I was explaining was caused as a result of your wrong action(s) harming others.
    – Reyraa
    Commented Jan 31, 2020 at 16:10

19 Answers 19


The verb smoulder is, correspondingly, often used metaphorically here.

smoulder verb [I] (PROBLEM) If a problem or unpleasant situation smoulders, it continues to exist and may become worse at any time:

The dispute is still smouldering, five years after the negotiations began.


(The literal definition is 'to burn slowly ... without flames'.)

  • 3
    Fester was what came to mind first, but smoulder is much better.
    – That Idiot
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 13:46
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    Seems to me that smoldering is closer to the form of the Persian expression of "fire under the ashes" but festering, like festering resentment, might be a better fit for the underlying meaning of the idiom. (Festering is a term for a wound that has an infection under the surface.)
    – Duncan C
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 19:39

Be a (ticking) time bomb may suggest the idea you are describing:

A person, thing, or situation that can at any moment cause much havoc or result in a disastrous outcome.

  • I'm telling you, this dirty money we're using to finance the campaign is a ticking time bomb! If anyone were to investigate how we got it, we'd all go to jail! Jenny's attracted to men who exude an air of danger, and her new boyfriend seems like a time bomb.

(The Free Dictionary)


'Kick the can down the road' is an expression that conveys the concept of a problem accompanying one on one's journey, and that by one's own deliberate attachment to it, rather than resolving the matter and leaving it behind as one progresses.

An interesting comment and history of the expression is recorded in Merriam Webster.

However, by kicking the can down the road again at least we go another year without having to pay for our out-of-control national debt.

News Times- January 3rd 2020


Consider not out of the woods yet.

Despite improvement, not yet completely free from difficulties or danger. (Often said in reference to someone's health or financial situation.)


  • Reading only OP's first paragraph, this seems like the best possible answer, so definitely +1-ing. OP's example might require more focus on the aspect of incorrect actions backfiring though, this one seems way too positive-minded for that particular sentence.
    – Bass
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 22:09
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    @Bass - +1 from me too. OP describes the situation as not fully resolved, but in the example provided there is no resolution at all- the gov’t just suppressed it instead of even trying to resolve it.
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 0:40
  • Note that this phrase describes a situation that's on the way to being totally resolved (as we are metaphorically leaving the woods). It's quite unlike a "band-aid" solution.
    – piojo
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 4:02
  • Once, in blizzard conditions in the Scottish mountains, my party became dis-oriented and went well off-track. Eventually, we managed to get out of the cloud and descend into a forested glen. We were no longer in mortal danger but still a long way from safety. To keep everyone sharp, I pointed out that we weren't out of the woods yet. Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 13:00

I can think of a couple of phrases that come close, but don't exactly capture what you're looking for.

To put a Band-Aid on a situation is to make some small, short-term effort to fix something, without addressing the underlying causes.

A way to describe people's feeling in such a situation could be smoldering tension - there's a sense of a deeper underlying issue that hasn't been addressed, which could spark a larger problem. The word smolder here aligns very well with the idea of "fire under the ashes".

Such a situation could be called a powder keg, which is a delicate state of affairs that could escalate quickly and violently with little provocation.

Each of these addresses different aspects of the situation, but none of them individually completely captures the act of making a short term fix that might be worse in the long run.


dormant, specifically the verb phrase to lie dormant.

Here's an excerpt from Merriam-Webster's definition of dormant (apologies for formatting issues, I'm on mobile):

marked by a suspension of activity: such as

  • a: temporarily devoid of external activity : "a dormant volcano"
  • b: temporarily in abeyance yet capable of being activated : "seeds will remain dormant until spring", "reawaken her dormant emotions"

Merriam-Webster also offers this remark:

DORMANT suggests the inactivity of something (such as a feeling or power) as though sleeping. their passion had lain dormant

And provides this example from the web:

[The] [s]teamboat lay dormant from October 1991 to May 2000 and from February 2007 to July 2013.

There's some synonyms listed that might be useful as well.

  • In a similar vein, lurking often fits the bill.
    – wchargin
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 2:25

Unfinished business suggests a situation where issues remain unresolved.

Definition of unfinished business : something that a person needs to deal with or work on : something that has not yet been done, dealt with, or completed

"You and I still have some unfinished business together."

"With this misguided adventure — promoted by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney as unfinished business from the first Gulf War — the U.S. immediately became bogged down in Iraq."


Several answers have referred to specific explosive devices (powder keg, time bomb), but explosive (as in explosive situation) is also a good fit. In this sense, conditions are ripe for an explosion but has yet to be triggered.

From the definition:

1.1 Likely to cause an eruption of anger or controversy.

  • ‘Marco's explosive temper’
  • ‘the idea was politically explosive’

Uneasy Truce

An agreement was reached but it could restart again quite easily.


Different from previous answers, the following focus a bit more on the inadequate attempt to resolve the situation half-heartedly and are a bit less dramatic.

  • to put a lid on something means to somewhat forcefully shut down something in progress, just to keep it under control

  • to sweep something under the rug insinuates a hasty attempt to avoid an embarrassing situation later

Both idioms imply that the actual situation is probably still not resolved and may resurface anytime.


English is entertainingly flexible, so if you can't find an idiom that fits what you're trying to say, consider a metaphor.

The culture used to be really toxic, and while it's gotten better under the leadership, I'm worried it might just be in remission.

It's harder to do on the fly, but it can work well when nothing quite fits and you have enough time to figure out something that works for the situation you're trying to describe.


An accident waiting to happen.

Used when there is a known hazard or danger of some sort, which has not been adequately dealt with. Can be used before or after the event.

  • That rickety staircase is an accident waiting to happen. Someone should do something.
  • That was an accident waiting to happen. I'm only surprised it took that long.

Here's another close match: If something has been done about the visible symptoms of a problem, but not the true problem, you can say that the problem has been papered over. The implicit analogy is to a badly damaged wall which has been covered with wallpaper, rather than fixing it properly.

This is similar to “put a Band-Aid on [a problem],” but harsher in its implications. Soap, water, and an adhesive bandage are sufficient treatment for a minor wound, are better than nothing for a major wound, and they don't hide the existence of the wound. Putting wallpaper over a damaged wall, on the other hand, only hides the damage, and makes it hard to tell whether the damage is continuing to get worse. So, “put a Band-Aid on” connotes an inadequate solution for the problem, but one that may have been the best anyone could do at the time, and intended only to stabilize the situation until there are time and resources for a proper fix. "Paper over" connotes that whoever is in charge does not care about a proper fix, only about appearances and short-term costs.

[Footnote: in American English, “Band-Aid” is a genericized trademark, used to refer to any sort of adhesive bandage. The generic term for adhesive bandages in your native language is probably different.]


Generally, I'm in the group of people suggesting the metaphoric "smolder/smoldering" (the smoldering people) and it is a direct fit/analogue to your own Persian language saying. An alternative, that I'll suggest, would be "unsettled" because that directly considers a situation that has gone bad and hasn't been resolved yet, another of course would be the direct "unresolved" (the first I think better by implying an actively "uncontrolled jostling and shifting" situation, while the second implies more "an unfocused view" which doesn't carry as much of an active sense to it).


In the engineering world, appropriate expressions are "jury-rigged," "kludge," or "held together with spit and baling wire."



Things are touch and go for now. I'll keep you posted.


I liked smoldering and not out of the woods yet suggested by others.

A bit less specific but good enough that I find it worth mentioning is the situation is still volatile. You need to add still because volatile alone does not imply that anything has happened before; it just means that a situation is "subject to rapid or unexpected change"(Merriam-Webster), specifically an explosion, literally or metaphorically.


There is a similarity to the Persian saying when we refer to something not known but strongly suspected. "Where there's smoke there's fire," is a popular expression in Britain.


As far as the “unfinished business” or “unresolved issues” aspect, we often use the expression “put in the too-hard basket” or “put on the back burner” in Australia. I’m not sure to what extent these expressions are used in other parts of the English-speaking world.

These metaphors imply that the decision-maker is unwilling or unable to resolve the issue at this time so will “shelve it” to be dealt with at some unspecified time in the future (if ever).

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