What would be an equivalent expression to the Spanish "cortar por lo sano", probably something like "cutting by the healthy part", to convey the idea that to solve a problem from spreading, like gangrene, sometimes the solution chosen is to cut deep even through the healthy parts of the limb.

  • 1
    Do you want an expression that literally refers to cutting something out, or is this just an example of sacrificing something healthy to remove something dangerous?
    – tylerharms
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 13:40
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    I've seen the expression cauterize used in such context.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 9:54
  • @SF though I think my answer is the most-similar expression to 'cortar por lo sano', I think you are correct that "cauterization" is the verb form. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 6:04
  • @NewAlexandria: To cauterize is the verb form. Cauterization is the noun form.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 8:29
  • @SF, ah blah, yes Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 9:36

11 Answers 11


I'm not sure it fits exactly, but there is a phrase with similar intent in the medical profession: "life over limb". It directly mirrors your gangrene example because you might have to sacrifice part of a healthy limb to save the patient's life.

It is sometimes used beyond the literal meaning as well. For instance, moving a patient with a suspected neck injury might risk paralysis, but might be done anyway when the alternative is certain death. Someone might justify that decision by saying "life over limb."

  • I like it. It's an almost mirror of the Spanish expression.
    – 719016
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 8:12
  • I am inclined to accept this one for the bounty, it seems "life over limb" is as close as we get to "cortar por lo sano".
    – 719016
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 13:12
  • @130490868091234 - Thanks. I think if you're going for the medical angle, as in the case of gangrene, "life over limb" is more appropriate. If you're talking about a more generic expression that can fit any situation, I actually prefer Zarija's answer of 'cut your losses'.
    – Lynn
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 16:18

A fairly accurate translation would be to make a clean break. Similar idioms include: cash in your chips or cut your losses.

The idea here is that something bad has already occurred, so one must take an extreme or decisive measure to avoid further negative outcomes.

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    I don't think English has an expression which catches quite OP's sense. Cut to the quick is close in literal meaning, but lacks the sense of ‘necessary sacrifice’. Cut out the cancer includes the sense of ‘preventing further loss’, but lacks the sense of ‘sacrificing healthy tissue’. I think Cut your losses is best: it implies ‘sacrificing the hope of recouping losses in order to prevent further loss’. Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 16:00
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    Cut your losses is good (+1), as it expresses sacrifice already endured. It isn't perfect, but if I knew what was, I would answer! Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 17:55
  • +1 "Clean break". This is a fairly literal translation. It means that one severs a connection completely and begins anew, instead of trying to preserve part of the connection.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 23:13

The nearest one I can think of is "cut out the cancer", though it is more to do with complete elimination than stopping spreading.

cut out the cancer: a figurative expression meaning to eliminate

Another possibility is "root out"


I don't think this is idiomatic, but I think "back burning," as in the forest firefighting technique wherein firefighters create a small, controlled fire to stop a larger fire, has the sense of sacrificing or even removing something to halt the advance of some danger.

In order to preserve my reputation for the long term, I had to do some back burning and admit my involvement in the split pea soup scandal.

  • I have heard this referred to as "fighting fire with fire" but that phrases has now come to have 2 meanings. One being the practice of a controlled burn and the other meaning responding to aggression with an act of aggression.
    – Sean Cline
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 5:13
  • @SeanCline Fighting fire with fire is more idiomatic."Back burning" per the definition give by tyler is a good equivalent to OP's saying, as it denotes burning at a smaller scale in order to save the entire ecological organism (so to speak, the forest) from death by fire. The problem, which tyler points out, is that it isn't idiomatic per se. Your expression of fighting fire with fire, IS idiomatic, but I think of it as representing the aggression scenario, exclusively these days. Still, this is one of the better answers, definite +1-worthy. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 18:02

I don't know of an idiomatic equivalent in English of Spanish “cortar por lo sano”; with the possible exception of root out, previously suggested phrases (particularly cut to the quick and cut to the chase) do not have senses that suggest a need for deep cutting through healthy tissue to keep a problem from spreading. For such a sense, consider phrases like ruthless triage or dispassionate triage.

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    Thanks for 'root out', which is close in meaning but not exactly the same.
    – 719016
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 10:00

You would "nip it in the bud".

..and, if you miss your first chance, then "a stitch in time saves nine".

I think you'll find that to 'nip in the bud' is the closest exact expression to "cortar por lo sano" because

  • +1 the context of this expression is also to stop something unhealthy before it gets too big. However, I'm not sure it captures the fact of sacrificing something good as a consequence. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 18:11
  • @Fuhrmanator I've always seen the 'detriment of something good' part of this as implicit - the bad is growing on the good, so stopping the bad always involves a tiny bit of the good, too. Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 15:35

One says [para] 'cortar por lo sano'- when making a tough decision/ruthlessly attacking a problem with extreme measures without compromise. The idiom clearly of medical origins- making reference to amputation of, say, a gangrenous limb, which in turn would remove all the diseased part, leaving only the healthy is often and most commonly MIStranslated as 'cut to the chase'.

The two idiomatic phrases best suited to express this vary based on purpose. The first,

  1. to "take drastic steps" - solely is an idiomatic phrase remaining true to meaning and preserving much of the narrative history associated with the phrase. It does little to preserve similarity in structure or even to present itself as a parallel to the original the second,

  2. to "cut one's losses" - seems almost instinctively wrong as the meaning is to cut or relive oneself of something for gain. Loss however in the sense used here is 'the gangrenous leg'. It is best to disavow oneself of that which will and is harming for the better than to remain in the same position. It lacks some of the expediency of the original Spanish phrase but I feel better preserves its integrity.

Truly, either is appropriate and it is a personal choice. :)

Best to you, and may I suggest looking for a dictionary of idioms.

Note: This is just from a little bit of personal research and experience as a native speaker of both.

  • The OP said "to convey the idea that to solve a problem from spreading". The idea of tough decisions, ruthlessness, and extreme measures come from you rather than the OP, so you have actually answered yourself with two options that do not convey the meaning the OP asked for. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 7:33
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    +1 -- to take drastic measures and to take drastic steps Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 18:14
  • no @RoaringFish I actually used the idiomatic phrase the way it would be defined by any native speaker. The OP is free to their perceived meaning of the phrase but I was just offering insight into what contextually is offered from a cultural heritage of the phrase. Hence my suggestion of a dictionary of idioms as without context and in search of an actual 'translation' any bi/multi-lingual person will tell you that translation is commonly misunderstood to be a rendering that preserves structure- it is not. In other words- don't call fact opinion and please don't be condescending, its lame. Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 20:50
  • @lyabo Forrest ~ I speak 4 languages. I know about translation. This is how I know that you are re-translating the phrase into what you want it to be, and think that what you would like it to be is what the OP should have said. It is really better to answer the question that was asked, not the one you think should have been asked. Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 4:05

The corresponding expression you are looking for in English is cutting to the quick.

  • 2
    One reference for it says that "to cut to the quick" literally means to trim (cut) a fingernail down to the nailbed, the living tissue that bleeds - the "quick" is the living flesh.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 13:19
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    @Mawg ~ what you are describing is "cut to the chase". Figuratively, "cut to the quick" is to hurt somebody's emotions deeply. Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 13:26
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    @tchrist ~ that is almost the literal meaning. It can mean any deep cut, similar to "cut to the bone":::'to slice the flesh of someone or some animal clear through to the underlying layer of flesh or to the bone. With the very sharp knife, David cut the beast to the quick in one blow.'::: As you correctly say, 'quick' is the 'living part', lying under the skin. Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 13:31
  • @RoaringFish the usage of this phrase is to describe an unwarranted attack, and usually an attack that leaves someone irrevocably hurt. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 6:09

For taking extreme measures to rescue the organism

The medical term in which you remove a gangrenous limb (and some healthy flesh) in order to save the life of the patient is amputate.

I have culled some amputate synonyms from thesaurus.com that convey a sense of removal that is so extreme that some of the healthy part is also removed.

cut away, cut off, dismember, excise, lop, sever, truncate

For example,

The corruption was so widespread that the new president had to perform an amputation / a dismemberment / a cutting away of the Old Guard.

For foolishly removing the good with the bad

There is an idiomatic phrase, Throw out the baby with the bath water, which connotes getting rid of something precious (the baby) while getting rid of something useless (the bath water). But the perspectives on the Spanish proverb and this English proverb seem to be different. The former focuses on the urgency of the removal, while the latter focuses on not being discriminating.

The new president had to "throw out the baby with the bath water": he accepted the resignations of seasoned, career diplomats in order to excise the intransigent from Foreign Service.

For the harshness of the action taken

Draco was fabled to have written laws that were unjustly harsh. An adjective reflects this harshness.

draconian (adjective) 1. too harsh: unjustly harsh or severe 2. of Draco: relating to the Athenian legislator Draco or his wide-ranging and harsh code of laws

From Bing.com.

For example,

The CEO took draconian measures and fired all of the senior staff, including his mother.

There is an Italian proverb, “Traduttore, tradittore” or “Translator, traitor.” I think you will have to decide what mirrors your intention for "cortar por lo sano," knowing that your translation won't be completely faithful.

  • 1
    Good answer, but I feel obligated to mention that "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" is generally seen as an act of bad judgement, unlike the phrase the OP wants an English equivalent of.
    – user867
    Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 1:04
  • Agreed, @user867. That's why I added that "the perspectives of the Spanish and this English proverb seem to be different." "Cortar por lo sano" has a sense of determined urgency, while "baby + bath water" is indiscriminant.
    – rajah9
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 13:59

While there may not be a fixed idiom in this case, you can try "to sacrifice the good with the bad" or a more common fixed phrase, used more commonly in America I think is to, "Sacrifice the good for the perfect" but doesn't have the connotations of bad being cut away.

Sacrifice also has, of course, the connotations of knives, blood and pain.

Less dramatically our idioms to express a similar idea of gaining by losing include; no pain no gain, good medicine tastes bitter, you win some you lose some, you can't have everything, etc. These all sound very light hearted and jolly (as they are supposed to be!) and I don't hear much blood!


The Spanish expression is vivid and specific in a way that none of the suggestions are. Sometimes it might be worth the space to draw the whole idiom into English, with something like this:

The Spanish have an expression "to cut on the healthy side", which conjures up an image of removing diseased tissue. You always want to cut on the healthy side of the boundary, inevitably sacrificing some healthy tissue to make sure all the diseased tissue is gone. X is like this.

I realize the translation I give is really a paraphrase, not an accurate translation, but I think in English it makes the point more clear.

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