Is there an aphorism or proverb in English which describes attempting to improve something fundamentally flawed by dressing it with a lot of ornament?


8 Answers 8


If it's fundamentally flawed: you can't polish a turd.

  • One has to be careful with this one, but I can't deny I've always liked it since I first heard it. Not so many years ago, actually, so maybe it's worth trying to establish a "first use" here on ELU. After you? Dec 20, 2012 at 1:40
  • Earliest reference I've found is to a 1983 film ("Christine", character Will Darnell). Interestingly, Mary Matalin is reported as having quoted Lyndon Johnson (who died in 1973): "you can't shine shit", but I can't immediately see anything better than that.
    – Billy
    Dec 20, 2012 at 2:29
  • They might be misdated, but there are a couple of "polish a turd" citations from 1976/77 there. Dec 20, 2012 at 2:37
  • And from Love is not a safe country (1967), here's "You can't shine shit," Rina said. Dec 20, 2012 at 2:41
  • @FumbleFingers- actually I provided that as an answer to this question a while back.
    – Jim
    Dec 20, 2012 at 6:53

There's the relatively recent one about putting lipstick on a pig.


I'd never heard of lipstick on a pig before US politicians decided to popularise it very recently, so I'd call that a "soundbite" rather than a "proverb". For something with a slightly longer history...

You can't make a Silk Purse out of a Sow's Ear

...which goes back at least to C17. In my experience, it's normally said disparagingly after a botched attempt to improve something, rather than as advice to start by using good raw materials.

  • I thought of the silk purse-sow's ear one, but it doesn't really fit, because it's about making something, rather than about fixing something. (And in my experience, that is how it's usually used.)
    – Marthaª
    Dec 20, 2012 at 0:53
  • 1
    The Wikipedia article I cited says that that particular sentence comes from 1985. It has two other gems: "Thomas Fuller, the British physician, noted the use of the phrase 'A hog in armour is still but a hog' in 1732, here, as the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) later noted 'hog in armour' alludes to 'an awkward or mean looking man or woman, finely dressed.' The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) recorded the variation 'A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog'in his book of proverbs The Salt-Cellars (published 1887)."
    – user21497
    Dec 20, 2012 at 1:22

Papering over the cracks

From Merriam Webster:

chiefly British
to hide problems
We have to acknowledge these problems. We can't just paper over the cracks.

A recent example of the phrase from Belfast Telegraph:

Papering over cracks of flawed system in Northern Ireland won't work - we need to rip it up and start again

  • 1
    The image is of wall-papering, where the diligent worker meticulously fills cracks and gaps and smooths irregularities in the wall to be papered, and the lazy one just hopes (in vain) that no one will notice once a layer of paper has been applied. Jul 11, 2017 at 20:24

putting rouge on a corpse.

Won't help a bit but will make it look more lively.

I think I can add some from the Jargon File:

Wave a dead chicken (to appease powers-that-be that everything that could be done has been done)

Add Bells and whistles (which doesn't imply the program is faulty but the action is rather useless)

If you like these, I recommend you browse the Jargon glossary, you'll find a plenty.

  • I like that! Any more? Thank you!
    – 1252748
    Dec 19, 2012 at 23:54

To put a "Bandaid on a bullet wound".

-An attempt to deal w/ a severe problem in an inadequate way.
-To mask/cover a problem rather than heal it.
-Trying to superficially fix something that is more severe, intrinsic or fundamental to a system, or persons wellness.


Bill Franke already mentioned putting lipstick on a pig, and “Ann” mentioned putting lipstick on a pig in an earlier answer and Kyle Pearson mentioned putting lipstick on a pig in another earlier answer. Also, Tom Au's suggestion of puffery, “that is puffing up the best features [...] and pointedly ignoring the worse ones” applies here.

Also see question #62814, question #41508, question #64079, question #43237, and question #40483, some of which are vaguely related to the current question.


Polishing a Turd (NAVY) Someone trying to make an idiot look like a genus. (Music Industry) The house band attempting to make the opening act singer sound good when they sing terrible. (Government) Promoting a person as having high moral management standards, when in fact they have no morality at all.

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