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I'm looking for an English equivalent of this beautiful, succinct Farsi saying, گر حکم شود که مست گیرند, which roughly means:

If it is decided to get the drunks, they will have to get everyone who is in the city.

It's used when you want to advise someone against going after one person because of a fault they have because you will end up having to go after everyone due to the prevalence and widespreadness of the fault.

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    I don’t think I understand what ‘If it is decided to get the drunks, they will have to get whoever is in the city.’ is supposed to mean. What does ‘get’ mean? Are they grabbing a single random person or what? Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 7:23
  • @user3840170 from context I assume it would be an arrest of some sort.
    – Aubreal
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 13:34
  • I would too. But I would also assume that guessing ambiguous meaning from context is, in general, supererogatory on part of the recipient. Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 13:40
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    I contend that the that a direct is fine, provided you adjust for more general idiomatics. Essentially something like: ‘If you want to arrest the drunks, you will have to arrest the whole city.’. Such a statement is not ‘established’ as an idiom in English, but should also be immediately understandable to most native speakers. Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 11:31
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    "we're all bozos on this bus" Commented Sep 8, 2022 at 15:13

5 Answers 5

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English doesn't have a specific phrase like this, but there are many variations of phrases like "if you do X, the jails would be full by noon" or "...the jails would be full by nightfall", emphasising that if you lock up everyone who breaks a law, then you'll run out of places to imprison them.

Examples

From "Six Months in Jail For an 'Offensive' Facebook Status Update", Mark Hillary, Huffington Post, 05/01/2012:

If a government wants to be seen as democratic in this new era of online social discourse then they need to realise, you can't jail everyone who is critical of the prime minister - the jails would be full by tomorrow afternoon.

From a mystery novel, Murder in Murray Hill, Victoria Thompson, Penguin, 2014

Frank had to agree, but if he tried to arrest every bounder in the city, the jails would be full by nightfall.

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    Related, "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" – William Shakespeare. Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2. Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 22:20
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"let him who is without sin cast the first stone" - implicitly no one will throw then - meaning that the fault under discussion is so prevalent that no one is able to pass judgement

"People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" - this is less aimed at the general public, and is more insinuating that the person adressed is not without fault in this case as well.

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    For the record, the first of those is is of course a reference to the Bible, specifically John 8:7.
    – gidds
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 21:00
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    Not quite the same, because it emphasizes the fault also existing in the accuser, instead of the fault being widespread. But good approximations nonetheless.
    – fectin
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 22:10
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    I would say "let him". See also <english.stackexchange.com/questions/42097/…>.
    – user570286
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 2:22
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    @Chaim It is "let him".
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 7:24
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    Odd, I always heard it as "he"; but yes, that makes little grammatical sense. maybe it's influenced by the KJV which has "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."
    – Muzer
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 9:48
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Your Phrase in English

If you want to directly render the Farsi saying in English, this might be a more understandable translation:

Going after the drunks would mean going after everyone in the city.

or perhaps

Going after the drunks would mean arresting the entire city.

  • "Going after" stands alone better and more clearly suggests the pursuit of a criminal than "get." It is a phrasal verb that is not really related to the prepositional meaning of "after."
  • There is also no need to say, in the passive voice, "if it is decided that," since "would" already implies that the subject (the verb phrase "going after the drunks") is a future hypothetical.
  • "Arresting the entire city" will be understood colloquially to mean "arresting [everyone in] the entire city," and is an example of metonymy.

These suggested shorter phrases have more punch (effect, memorability, ease of understanding).

Possible Alternatives

The following known sayings aren't perfect matches to your presented phrase, thus aren't direct substitutions, but they could work.

You should count the cost first.

Meaning: Make sure, before beginning any enterprise or project, that you can actually afford it, or you may end up paying more than you wish or can afford. Cost, here, can be non-monetary, such as time, effort, or any negative consequences.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

Meaning: This course of action will be hard to exit from later. "In" means "to be entered into at the cost of," similar to asking a people playing high-stakes card games how much money they have at risk, "how much are you in for?" There is a sense of becoming locked in to events or to an enterprise such that a small initial commitment or cost will likely balloon into a large one (or has already), with little chance to escape. Again, while expressed in monetary terms, the concept extends to any kind of cost or negative consequence. A penny is a small unit of money, and a pound is a large unit of money (see monetary symbol GBP).

An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

Note that this is only for special situations and isn't a general replacement for your phrase.

Meaning: It isn't wise to take revenge or give out exact retribution, since everyone makes mistakes, and the end result of such a policy (taken fully literally) would result in a lot of eye-gouging, causing many to be blind. Limited to when the proposed action (being likened to cutting out someone's eye) could be considered some kind of retaliation.

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    I wish I could upvote the second half of this (the English translation) without the first; I'm not sure the proposed substitutions are on-point, but the translation is perfect. Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 20:32
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    @CharlesDuffy I'll swap their order so at least the part you consider more valuable is at the top.
    – ErikE
    Commented Sep 7, 2022 at 20:36
  • Non-native here, but I'd think it should be "in for a penny, out for a pound"? Like, easy to get in, hard to get out. Or would you care to explain me the meaning I don't get?
    – Simone
    Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 9:24
  • @Simone the phrase could be rewritten "if you put in a penny, you're going to end up putting in a pound", i.e. the cost of your action is going to balloon to a much larger size than you initially realised.
    – Boneist
    Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 11:02
  • @Boneist Got it, thank you!
    – Simone
    Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 12:24
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A similar sentiment, but more drastic, is expressed by the German saying

Die kannst du alle in einen Sack stecken und draufhauen, da triffst du immer den Richtigen.

(Roughly: "You can put all of them in one sack and hit it — you’ll always get the right one.") Meaning that all of the group of people one is talking about deserve a beating. Wictionary uses politicians as an example.

The emphasis here is probably different: The Farsi proverb appears to indicate not only that the offensive behavior is very common; additionally it suggests that it is pointless to prosecute it. Perhaps it even indicates that it would be foolish. (I suppose that it stops short of condoning the behavior that drinking stands in for, given the official religious prohibition for Muslims.) By contrast, while the German proverb as well acknowledges that whatever offends the speaker is common it still suggests that in principle everybody deserved to suffer for it.

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    Excellent suggestion.... if only this were German Language
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 12:20
  • @Mitch You are right, this seems to be one of the few cases that don't have a corresponding saying in English -- the translation results in exactly zero google hits which is quite unusual. So it is off topic, strictly spoken. Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 12:42
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A proverb, which is not common but self-explanatory and I believe is the closest approximation, is:

A fool may throw a stone into a well which a hundred wise men cannot pull out.

It is along the same lines as the Farsi saying. It can be used to advise against going after or trying to correct a fool, a stupid person; as the irresponsibility of a fool can cause harm to many people. I believe it is used in other languages also.

The proverb is also listed in the Dictionary of Proverbs by George Latimer Apperson; and the year 1640 is given for the origin:

Fool and Fools

13. A fool may throw a stone into a well, which a hundred wise men cannot pull out. 1640: Herbert , Jac . Prudentum. 1854: J. W. Warter, Last of Old Squires, 53.

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    I don't think that's close at all. It fails to convey that the foolishness is ubiquitous. Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 15:28
  • @TobySpeight Your objection is not clear. It doesn't need to convey that foolishness is ubiquitous. I explained in detail and it is very close in meaning.
    – ermanen
    Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 15:44
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    I think it's clear; the question specifically says, "you want to advise against going after somebody because then you will have to get everyone else also, due to the prevalence of his fault". Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 17:06
  • @TobySpeight And the proverb I've provided has a similar meaning and usage as I've explained. I don't see the point of your comments.
    – ermanen
    Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 17:09
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    To be honest, possibly many people are misinterpreting the Farsi saying just by looking at the English translation; but the OP made it more clear by also providing the meaning or the morale. It is along the same lines with my answer. The OP (or someone else who is proficient in both Farsi and English) can possibly clarify further and confirm my understanding. I'm confident about my answer and understanding though.
    – ermanen
    Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 20:57

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