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There seems to be a British English idiom that matches the usage I seek:

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/kick-against-the-pricks

Kick against the pricks is also the translation used in the Bible for the Greek idiom it ultimately stems from.

However, I've never came across this phrase 'in the wilds' so to speak (in America). The Biblical entry appears to be more or less the only reference for search engines as well.

That said, it does seem like an interesting/useful enough concept to merit a commonly-used idiom.

Question

Is there an American English idiom that matches "kick against the pricks" and is widely used?

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    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 4:41

11 Answers 11

9

There are a couple phrases that come to mind.

  1. You can’t fight city hall.

This first phrase seems to capture the general concept of acting out against authority.

  1. Pissing into the wind*.

This phrase seem to capture the general concept of the futility of one’s actions. While the injury is ending up with urine being blown back onto yourself, this implies either thoughtlessness or stupidity.

  1. “Fighting the tide” or “paddling up stream”

This phrase seems a good match for the original biblical phrase, as it describes the futility and unnecessary pain of trying to act in opposition to the direction nature or life is pulling you in.

*please excuse the vulgarity.

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  • Or you can add here something about King Cnut trying to stop the tide (usually used for trying to stop the inevitable, even though it was about the limits of a king's power).
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 16:24
  • @Mitch: The only version I've heard about the king trying to stop the tide was him teaching his attendants to be more reasonable.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 21:55
  • @Joshua yes, that's supposed original intent of the story (whether true or apocryphal) but the 'you can't stop the tide' is a common reinterpretation.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 22:59
  • 1
    I've seen 'Can't fight fate' which may be closer to OP's sentiment. Also for one modernish usage, Nick Cave had a similarly titled album back in '86
    – mcalex
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 4:53
  • 1
    I think the common American idiom is "pound sand", though it holds no connotation of self-injury. (To "pound sand" is to do something that is completely futile and will have no effect.)
    – JamieB
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 15:18
9

If you scroll further down the link you provided, you will see that it is given as an American idiom too - but as the quotation (Acts 26:14) is from the King James Bible, the expression is unfamiliar and seldom used nowadays (and would probably raise a snigger). More modern translations use goads, evoking the meaning of a draught animal futilely resisting direction.

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  • 1
    +1 As an American who grew up on the New International Version of the Bible, "kick against the goads" was definitely a phrase I was familiar with. I don't know how common or uncommon it is outside of Christian circles.
    – DLosc
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 21:13
4

Bows and arrows against the lightning

A personal favourite ever since hearing it in Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds.
It is British English, quoted directly from Wells' book, but its meaning is obvious.
It does illustrate the complete futility of humankind against something powerful and awesome, but is also completely impersonal and indifferent, which maybe you require.

0
4

The biblical phrase suggests the foolishness in defying divine guidance in spite of one's own cost. Considering America was founded on using one's own judgement even if it defies authority, I don't think you will find an equivalent.

A popular American phrase showing futility is "beating my head against the wall." It means, "I am frustrated at my pain because means no matter how hard I try to accomplish my task I never make progress. No amount of effort will be enough."

2

Another suggestion, beside the already excellent earlier answers: You're fighting reality.

This is a phrase that my English-American Dad uses a lot. I don't know which side of the Pond is its native habitat.

Here's a case in the wild:

AMAZING THINGS HAPPEN WHEN YOU STOP FIGHTING REALITY

When I first heard Byron Katie describe the idea of ‘loving what is’ (accepting reality), she made it sound so simple. Too simple. But, she opened my eyes in a big way.

We create suffering when we fight with reality.

Angry that you are stuck in traffic? Sad because the weather is ruining your outdoor event? Anxious because your flight is delayed? You can’t change the traffic, the weather or the flights. If you choose to argue with reality, the result is suffering. The alternative is accepting reality. You are in traffic. The weather conditions aren’t ideal. The flight is late. ...

When you stop fighting reality--catmulvihill.com

P.S. I was born in Amish country; most people in my socio-geographical region were accustomed to the KJV Bible and to oxen; and when I, a little later, learned a bit how to drive oxen (using a goad with a --surprise!-- nail in the end of it), "kick against the prick" seemed a perfectly natural expression, although in normal speech, I would refer to the stick as a "goad" every time.

1

“Rage against the heavens,” comes to mind.

It’s British, not American, but John Milton’s Paradise Lost has by far the most famous literary description, on either side of the Pond:

Innumerable force of Spirits armed,
That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power opposed
In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?

In the past, women who wanted more freedom were sometimes dismissed as “stamping a tiny foot against God,” but that is only remembered by feminist historians today.

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You might have to substitute nature for "the gods" to get something we use in English. Racked my brain a bit and couldn't come up with anything. We might use the term Promethean but usually more in reference to heroic defiance rather than focused on the painful repercussions he endured.

"Holding back the tide" or "trying to hold back the tide" expresses futility against a force beyond anyone's ability to overcome. ("Swimming against the tide" was suggested in another answer, but that is used more to express that someone is doing something hard, but possible; often seen as noble. Something an enlightened nonconformist might do.)

"Chafing under" a restriction/rule/leader is another phrasing you'll see sometimes. It refers, I think, to the yoke or harness on an animal wearing into their skin because they are resisting the direction of the human that's controlling them.

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While not an exact equivalent, I think the phrase most likely to be used by an American in the circumstances would be "Resistance is futile".

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0

“Spitting into the wind” would be your best bet.
And its use “in the wild”: You Don’t Mess Around with Jim by Jim Croce

-1

There isn't one except the example given here in the title, or slight variations using synonymous words. There may be idiosyncratic regional sayings but like many other concepts English just doesn't have a catchy phrase for it.

-1

Arash, Your original question uses the term 'gods' (plural).

The fundamental basis of Christianity (if that is what you are asking about) is based on the concept that there is one God above all the others (think of the idea of "The God of the gods").

Americans would not tend to have idioms which refer to resisting 'gods' (plural), due to the extensive background in Christian theology which many, many Americans are familiar with. That being said, the Christian Bible is replete with warnings about resisting God (singular). In fact, there are so many, that I don't really know where to start.

Perhaps a sampling of some passages might help?

  1. The 10 commandments, found in Exodus chapter 20 paints a pretty good picture of God not wanting to be messed with...

Then you have examples like:

  1. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" Proverbs 1:7
  2. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" Hebrews 10:31
  3. "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for what so ever a man sows (or plants), that shall he also reap (or harvest)" Galatians 6:7
  4. "And the smoke of their torment ascends up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receives the mark of his name." one of many promises of everlasting condemnation found in The Revelation of St. John

and finally, you find language like this:

  1. "...when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power..." 2 Thessalonians Chapter 1

Note: I am neither endorsing, nor rejecting the above statements. I am merely listing them for reference.

This is just a smattering of the types of language that exists in Scripture, and might become an idioms. There is a lot of language about not resisting God.

So, I guess the answer to your query is: There are too many to list? However... having gone through the exercise, I suspect that "God is not mocked" might be a good choice. What do you think? I hope that helps... Peace

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    Borderline preachy. Recommended action is delete references to "American theology" or whatever, delete bible passages and associated commentary and delete information about the "fundamental basis of christianity" Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 1:26

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