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Is there anything in English similar to this Russian joke/proverb/or you could even say sarcasm:

"The hedgehogs got pricked, cried, but continued to eat the cactus".

It describes people who continue to do something less than optimal (even detrimental in terms of effort or/and money) when better alternatives readily exist.

I'm not sure the Russians made it up in the first place but it's extremely popular on the Internet.

The Russian saying implies there are several ways to achieve something yet people stick to something they learn first and then despite much better options being available they continue to stick to what worked and what they tried the first time. Hedgehogs eat the cactus and they actually get the necessary food and nutrients to survive yet despite better/safer food available in the wild they stick to the cactus.

You can also see "mice" being used instead of "hedgehogs".

Here it is as a Google search query.

And a possible trivia/history/explanation of its origin.

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    I don't think the one you've suggested means the same. The Russian one talks about people who continue to do something less than optimal (even detrimental in terms of effort or/and money) when better alternatives readily exist. Apr 28, 2023 at 12:16
  • Actually, sting usually implies injecting a small amount of venom, so cacti prick you rather than sting you. Apr 28, 2023 at 12:18
  • 4
    Is there some significance of the hedgehog? The prickly similarity between a hedgehog and a cactus suggests to me it's a deliberate choice of animal, but I can't suss any additional meaning to it. Apr 28, 2023 at 16:52
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    @ArtemS.Tashkinov From the way your question now appears to me after your fleshing it out, I wonder if you're looking for the well-known idiom old habits die hard?
    – user405662
    Apr 28, 2023 at 17:09
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    @NuclearHoagie The source material is a joke where three mice wanted to grow quills and thus become well protected happy hedgehogs. They went to the wise owl who told them to find a big cucumber growing under a certain tree and eat it. The owl warned that in the process there should be prickling sensations indicating the quills are successfully growing. The mice found the "cucumber" and started eating it. They stopped after each bite in strong pain, but recalled the words of the owl and kept eating. So originally it's about blindly following a bad advice.
    – GSerg
    Apr 28, 2023 at 22:37

12 Answers 12

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You might say that behavior describes a glutton for punishment, idiomatically. Literally one who is overly fond of/overeats negative consequences, which is exactly what those animals are doing.

From Collins Dictionary:

a person who keeps on doing something which is unpleasant or difficult for them

Usually a glutton for punishment will take on tasks that others find too taxing, unnecessary, or just not worth it.

Another turn of phrase is "They won't let go of the shovel," an allusion to the law of holes, the first being "when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

Since it's their goal to get the food, and the animals could dig around for it, it's funny in comparison because while not actually digging for cactus, digging into it hurts them. As they can't remember or learn the law of holes, they end up in an infinity/insanity cycle. That hedgehog must be a glutton for punishment.

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  • This seems closest among all the answers so far
    – justhalf
    Apr 29, 2023 at 10:21
  • "You really are a glutton for punishment. Time and again I've beaten you, humbled you. What makes you think today's outcome will be any different?" - Darkseid, to Superman
    – Clockwork
    Apr 29, 2023 at 20:08
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    Yes, I must be that glutton for punishment: putting an answer in comments, getting it deleted, and having it made into a proper answer by someone else. And I would do it again [takes another bite of cactus]. Apr 30, 2023 at 2:07
  • @TinfoilHat Ouf, we must be two thirds of some myopic mice (based on the original tale that is now coming to light); I don't know if I should add that as related to the joke aspect or just leave it in a comment. Cheers, to the many properties of cacti, tchin.
    – livresque
    Apr 30, 2023 at 2:26
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As user405662 has mentioned, “old habits die hard” is a very well-established saying that describes how people are prone to doing things the way they have always done it and how hard it is to change.

Another phrase is “creature of habit,” as in “people are creatures of habit,” for example. The gist is very similar.

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    This is the answer that best covers all of the interpretations OP has mentioned.
    – Flater
    Apr 30, 2023 at 23:07
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"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

While this adage (and many variations like it) is often attributed to Albert Einstein, it's not clear where the statement comes from. The adage is often used to call out someone who repeatedly does an action that isn't working or that does harm. They do not learn from the action not working the first time, so they keep on doing it, hoping for a different outcome. "Maybe this time will be better," the target of this adage might think.

Many, many examples are out there. This 2013 Salon article collected several uses of the cliche among political reporting of the time. Even XKCD (1657) has applied the adage.

White Hat and Cueball, two recurring characters from XKCD webcomic, are walking towards the right while having a conversation. White Hat says: "They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results". And Cueball replies: "You've been quoting that cliché for years. Has it convinced anyone to change their mind yet?"

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    Not what I'm looking for unfortunately. The essence of this Russian saying is that better alternatives exist but people stick to something because of bias, traditions, mindset, inertia, lack of knowledge (or a lack of desire to learn something new), etc. Apr 28, 2023 at 12:59
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    "... it's not clear where the statement comes from." As far as is known, it originated with Al-Anon/ Narc-Anon and similar programs. quoteinvestigator.com/2017/03/23/same
    – Pete
    Apr 28, 2023 at 17:43
  • That's obviously not the same. Apr 29, 2023 at 17:45
  • The thing that has always annoyed me about this cliche is that it completely ignores the concept of getting better at something through practice. Repetition can lead to different results. People often fail (sometimes disastrously) the first time, or first several times they try to do something, but practice allows them to acquire the skill and get good at it. The cliche is only valid when people fail to learn from their mistakes.
    – cas
    May 1, 2023 at 5:28
  • I believe it was Philip K Dick
    – Stephen R
    May 1, 2023 at 20:26
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This isn't a proverb but rather a joke attributed to Henny Youngman that goes as follows:

The patient says, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this." The doctor says, "Then don't do that!"

It's funny for the same reasons that your proverb is funny: People do self-destructive behaviors and feel the pain as a consequence but still continue. They have the option to not do that but they don't stop.

When I've heard this, sometimes only the first line of dialogue is said ("Doctor, it hurts when I do this") with the assumption that the audience knows the rest. Most of the results I found online have both lines and sometimes context on top of that.

Here are some examples:

  • Database problems:

    There’s an old joke that goes, “Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this.” While the person in question swings their arm over their head. The doctor’s response is, “Don’t do that.” Problem solved, right?

  • Dealing with social media (uses a slightly different phrasing):

    One friend of mine, after I told him what was going on and sent him a few gleaming examples, said to just turn it off for a while, to not look at it. I agree that's excellent advice most of the time. It's the old "Doctor, it hurts when I do this"/"Then don't do that" approach. Don't look at it, and it won't bother you.

  • Writing bad Fortran (an example which includes only the first line of dialogue)
  • School scores
  • Pain while singing
  • Pain management for Spina Bifida (taking it quite literally)
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    The Russian saying implies there are several ways to achieve something yet people stick to something they learn first and then despite much better options being available they continue to stick to what worked and what they tried the first time. Your patient analogy is unfortunately a miss. Hedgehogs eat the cactus and they actually get the necessary food and nutrients to survive yet despite better/safer food available in the wild they stick to the cactus. Apr 28, 2023 at 16:47
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From Proverbs 26:11: "As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly."

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Not spot on, and not really sarcastic but worth mentioning as I suspect its in some ways similar/related but has not been mentioned by others - "better the devil you know than the devil you don't"

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  • Yes! This was one of my first thoughts -- basically, people will go with something they are familiar with, rather than risking the unknown being worse -- even when the known path is known to be very bad. One of the best examples in my experience is when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans -- the mayor badly messed up the city's response, and a few months later was reelected. I remember a "man on the street" reporter asking a voter why she voted to reelect, and the voter shrugged and said "The devil you know..."
    – Stephen R
    May 1, 2023 at 16:23
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American English: to be in a rut or to be stuck in a rut is not a joke, but describes a similar condition.

It describes a person who is trapped by an inefficient or undesirable routine or established method of doing something. They are trapped because at any given instant, it is easier to keep going in the routine than to do something that would be easier or better in the long run.

The analogy is with a vehicle whose wheels can become stuck in the deeply worn tracks (ruts) left on a dirt path by previous vehicles, making it easy to follow the established path and hard to go anywhere else.

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The best I can think of is “to bang one's head against a brick wall” (which, of course, is an idiom rather than a proverb). It exists in many versions in English, and also in other languages.

The similarities are at least that:

  • an action is described which is harmful to the person involved;
  • that action does not produce the desired result, or at least not in an optimal way.
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  • The difference is that banging your head against a wall isn't merely sub-optimal. It's completely useless
    – Stephen R
    May 1, 2023 at 16:27
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IMHO there is a consensus that there is no close English equivalent. If you are writing something, why not just say: "As the Russians say, 'The hedgehogs got pricked, cried, but continued to eat the cactus'."? It is a neat expression, so just use it as translated. We do this all the time with Greek and Latin phrases translated: beware Greeks bearing gifts; all roads lead to Rome.

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  • Your examples are well known phrases that are used directly within English
    – Stephen R
    May 1, 2023 at 16:26
  • FYI, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" is not a Greek phrase. Its origins are from a Latin phrase about the Greeks. In modern Greek, they translate it to the Danaans, presumably to distinguish themselves from the Greeks who sacked Troy in the original story. May 1, 2023 at 18:24
  • @StephenR Well spotted, Sir: they are well known phrases. But, if you go back in time they weren't well known; somebody must have used them for the first time in English. I'm suggesting to the OP that he becomes the first person for this phrase. Somebody once said: "Shakespeare is all clichés". But they weren't clichés when he said them. May 1, 2023 at 20:20
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Rudyard Kipling quotes three in a row in his poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”:

That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

The first of these quotes Proverbs 26:11 (“As the dog returns to his vomit, so the fool returns to his folly.”), and the second 2 Peter 2:22 (“The sow that was just washed returns to her mire.”). For context, the Kipling Society explains:

‘Copybook headings’ were proverbs or maxims printed at the top of 19th century British schoolboys’ copybook pages. The students had to write them by hand repeatedly down the page. The poem is built around a series of sayings that would have been familiar to his British and American readers in 1919.

Hence the archaic capitalization of common nouns. Kipling is recalling how he was taught cursive by having to copy verses from an old Bible.

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You've heard the phrase "work smarter, not harder". There's a sarcastic variation that flips it around -- to say somebody "works harder, not smarter". I think this almost exactly strikes the meaning of the Russian saying. There may well be better ways of doing it, but the person in question works a lot harder than they need to, rather than applying their intelligence to figure out a better way of doing it.

Closely related to a different "reverse proverb" -- the person who "grasps defeat from the jaws of victory."

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"You can take the person out of the place, but you can't take the place out of the person" (on Wiktionary). There are several variations as listed on the Wiktionary page, such as "you can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy", "you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can't take the Texas out of the girl".

These capture at least part of the moral of the Russian proverb, which emphasizes the compulsive and unconscious continuation of one's inherent habits. They, however, overlook the aspect of automatic self-harm that is also present. It is possible that the proverb is more focused on the idea of solidity or consistency rather than addiction, but my interpretation may not fully capture the proverb's intended meaning, so please don't hesitate to demonstrate if I am mistaken.

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