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I am trying to remember an idiom I have heard before but can't remember. It goes something like:

They couldn't figure out how to [insert thing here] if they flipped it over to read the instructions.

I'm pretty sure thing is something that simply requires being turned upside down to be accomplished, but google hasn't been much help.

Does anyone know the idiom I'm thinking of?

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  • Hourglass/egg-timer.
    – mcalex
    Apr 3, 2022 at 13:03

2 Answers 2

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A slightly bowdlerized version of what I believe you’re thinking of is “He couldn’t pour water out of a boot with the directions printed on the bottom of the heel.” There’s more discussion about it here.

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They couldn't make heads or tails of it until they flipped it over to read the instructions.

not make head or/nor tail of (idiom)
variants: or US not make heads or/nor tails (out) of

informal

To be unable to understand (something)

I couldn't make heads or tails of her reaction.

His handwriting was so bad that we couldn't make heads or tails out of it. m-w

make heads or tails (out) of (someone or something)

To understand someone or something. This phrase is usually used in the negative to convey the opposite.

After spending hours working with the new piece of software, I still could not make heads or tails out of it.

I can't make heads or tails of that new guy in accounting. Sometimes, he's really friendly, and then other times he acts like he's never met me before. Farlex Dictionary of Idioms

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  • It makes more sense when it's written like this: "They couldn't make heads or tails of it until they flipped it [...]". "They couldn't figure out" already implies that they couldn't understand.
    – Justin
    Apr 1, 2022 at 18:29
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    @Justin Agreed, thanks. In fact, Farlex defines make heads or tails of, but adds that it's usually used in the negative.
    – DjinTonic
    Apr 1, 2022 at 18:33

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