By FAE


2011-08-15 14:10:14 8 Comments

I'm an American living in the Netherlands who is learning Dutch. There's an idiom in Dutch that describes performing a needless/futile activity, "water naar de zee dragen," which literally translates to "carrying water to the sea." My Dutch parents-in-law asked me if there was an English equivalent, but I couldn't think of one.

In doing some searches online, I found that the English translation given for the this idiom is always "carrying coals to Newcastle." This was the first time I'd ever come across the phrase, and subsequent searches revealed that it was indeed of British origin, though one site I found did claim that it was an American phrase. However, neither I nor any of my culturally American friends have ever heard of this phrase.

Is there an American English idiom or phrase that carries the same connotations for carrying out a futile activity?

29 comments

@nmg49 2017-11-14 18:08:48

I've heard of the phrase "bringing sand to the desert". I'm from the west coast of the United States. I'm not sure how common it is, but I feel like a native speaker would understand the intended meaning (as with many of the other examples provided on this thread).

@Phil Perry 2014-06-24 17:51:58

Many of the answers given here have involved futile tasks, that are either impossible to complete, or will be immediately undone. They're missing the point of the original question. I wouldn't call carrying coals to Newcastle exactly a futile task. It's certainly easily possible to do, but the point is that it's completely unnecessary and pointless, and therefore a waste of effort.

Phrases such as teaching your grandmother to suck eggs (unnecessary, she already knew how to do that) and rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic (a pointless task, as they'll be in the drink soon enough) are my favorites among all those mentioned, but may not be of American origin.

@Jon S 2014-05-30 14:51:05

"Ass-backwards."

"Carrying coals to Newcastle" is futile and unnecessary because it is completely the wrong way around. It refers to doing something in the opposite way that it should be done, or in a manner contrary to logic.

@Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 2011-08-15 15:09:56

Wiktionary suggests

Bring owls to Athens

which has the same sense as coal to Newcastle, in that there are already lots of owls (supposedly) in Athens. But I've never heard anyone say this and wouldn't have understood it.

@starblue 2011-08-15 18:23:01

In German this is well known ("Eulen nach Athen tragen").

@Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica 2011-08-16 09:08:10

This expression also exists in Dutch (uilen naar Athene dragen), though it is less common. From Wikipedia: In poetry from Homer, an oral tradition of the eighth or 7th century BC, onward, Athena's most common epithet is glaukopis (γλαυκώπις), which usually is translated as, bright-eyed or with gleaming eyes.[38] The word is a combination of glaukos (γλαύκος, meaning gleaming, silvery, and later, bluish-green or gray) and ops (ώψ, eye, or sometimes, face). ...

@Barb Van 2011-08-17 17:28:15

It depends on the context you are using; if you are talking spare time, it might be “watching the tube,” and referring to finances, it might be “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. In the United States, we have so many idioms used each day, that we have new ones we hear all the time. I like to call it writer's or speaker's license. I think that is why people from other countries have problems at times understanding us, because they take us literally, instead of figuratively. An example would be to “kick the bucket”.

@Nicholas 2011-08-15 14:57:17

These aren't exactly what you're looking for, I think, but they're related.

  • Re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic (a superficial, cosmetic change to something with a major underlying structural problem)
  • Teaching grandmother to suck eggs (giving advice to someone who is already an expert on the subject)
  • A Chinese fire drill (a large, ineffective, and chaotic activity carried out by a group of people that accomplishes nothing—but note that, as the Wikipedia article points out, this phrase is uncommon today due to the politically incorrect ethnic reference.)

@Rincewind42 2011-08-25 07:53:54

I'm not sure it this is American or not but I know of the phrase, "Selling tea to China." which approximates, "Taking coal to Newcastle."

@mcw 2011-08-18 19:07:00

How about "an exercise in futility?" It's not as picturesque of an idiom but it's certainly spot on in expressing "pointlessness" as opposed to "unimportance", "difficulty", or "tediousness" like some of the other answers.

@BradC 2011-08-18 17:41:29

Another I've heard before is emptying the ocean with a teaspoon (or lake or sea or swimming pool).

Not sure how common it is, but it certainly conveys a similar idea of uselessness (although for a slightly different reason than the original carrying coals to Newcastle)

@Dennis 2011-08-15 17:02:05

Also, if you'd like something slightly more pointed (albeit vulgar), there's "pissing into the wind."

Sources: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pissing%20into%20the%20wind (Definition 1)

http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/be+pissing+into+the+wind

@FAE 2011-08-15 20:39:25

The implication of "pissing into the wind" also includes that you're doing something that will have negative consequences for yourself. This isn't quite the same.

@Dennis 2011-08-17 23:53:02

@mgb 2011-08-15 20:03:09

Perhaps EL&U would be the perfect place to coin such a phrase.

  • Taking crooks to Washington
  • Taking rain to Seattle
  • Taking cocaine to Hollywood
  • Taking idiots to [name a place]

@Benjol 2011-08-16 07:02:17

Taking war to Afghanistan? (Sorry, couldn't resist)

@Fillet 2011-08-16 08:06:52

Taking oil to Texas?

@mgb 2011-08-16 12:49:40

@Jared Updike 2011-08-18 18:23:17

"Taking war to the Middle East" or "Taking war to the Holy Land".

@Jared Updike 2011-08-18 18:24:07

@Martin: that link makes me quite sad. I should be laughing somehow but I just can't. :-(

@Nathan Long 2011-08-17 14:37:49

I think you should just say "this is like carrying water to the sea." The meaning is clear, regardless of what language or culture you say it in.

The fact that it isn't a common expression may actually make it more effective.

@Ken Gregory 2011-08-16 19:44:42

"Go find you a white crayon and color a fucking zebra" - This lyric from Eminem's song "My Mom" (off of his Rehab album), represents the ultimate in futile efforts: coloring a black and white coloring book white.

@FumbleFingers 2011-08-17 02:29:55

Welcome to EL&U. But do you really think there's much chance people here will upvote this particular line from Eminem as an American English equivalent of the British idiom "carrying coals to Newcastle"?

@Ken Gregory 2011-08-23 14:42:31

Thanks for your polite response. I hope you apply it to every response that doesn't suit your fancy. However, since Eminem's lyrics are written in American English and this particular line's intent is quite similar, I don't see why it wouldn't contend as a valid submission. I apologize for my decision to quote someone other than e.e. cummings. I hope you can forgive me, FumbleFingers.

@FumbleFingers 2011-08-23 15:05:38

It's not really that it doesn't take my fancy, just that it probably won't get any upvotes and may well attract downvotes. Different standards apply to comments here though. You might even have got upvotes if you'd posted this as a comment, because it is quite a colourful (pardon the pun!) image. Whatever - I hope I'll have just cause to upvote one of your answers soon! :)

@Ken Gregory 2011-08-23 15:56:53

I don't really care how my posts are rated. I'll add them when I feel I have something to contribute. I hope fear of downvotes doesn't discourage people from sharing things they know (relative to the question of course).

@FumbleFingers 2011-08-23 16:11:38

Everyone has their own attitude in such matters, but collectively the EL&U community is (more or less) agreed that "Answers" should be attempts to answer the question. If you're just sharing related information in a way that doesn't fit that constraint, it should be posted as comments. Even if you don't care about gaining reputation points as such, you should at least recognise that they reflect what other people think of your contributions. A wise man tempers his words according to his audience.

@Ken Gregory 2011-08-23 17:18:32

The poster was looking for an example in American English that he could present to his Dutch friend. Chances are he's heard of Eminem, perhaps the very song I've quoted. Something they're potentially familiar with would be an excellent example. This is my attempt at answering the question - how does it fail to do so? Also, thank you for letting me know what a wise man would do. I was hoping someone would jump in, comment with passive aggression, and lecture me about wisdom.

@FumbleFingers 2011-08-23 17:52:25

As a general principle EL&U doesn't like even being asked to interpret the meaning of words/phrases taken from song lyrics. It's unlikely Eminem's phrasing there will ever gain the status of being a recognised "idiom", so I think it does not meet OP's or EL&U's criteria. If you feel it does, I can only repeat my advice that you should at least take some notice of votes (or lack of them) against your posts, since this will give an indication of whether others share your attitudes.

@Ken Gregory 2011-08-23 18:35:52

My answer provided interpretation and asked nothing of any person. I offered it as an alternative to other suggestions. I'm sorry if you disagree.

@Randal Schwartz 2011-08-16 15:39:03

I once attended a technical presentation near Tektronix headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The presenter was from the UK, and for some odd turn of events, his company had actually moved some coal towards Newcastle once.

The best part was that after having made the reference, later in his presentation he talked about designing some high-speed oscilloscopes. One of the first clients? Tektronix. (The irony here being that Tek was the world leader in scopes for many decades.)

So the US equivalent could be "selling scopes to Tektronix". :)

@Marnen Laibow-Koser 2011-08-16 13:39:38

I'm from New York, and I've always used "carrying coals to Newcastle". It's not specifically British.

I have read, BTW, that the medieval French equivalent was "bringing wool to England". Apparently English wool was popular in France...

@Stephen 2011-08-16 13:23:02

I am familiar with the phrase

  • Shovelling sand against the tide.

and it's more colourful cousin

  • Shovelling shit against the tide.

Both express that whatever effort you put forth, it's going to be immediately undone ... I think that's a good expression of futility.

@Sydnew 2011-08-16 12:37:41

I'd use "spinning his wheels" (or yours or hers). I think the implication is that the wheels are moving but you're not going anywhere. I looked it up and the free dictionary says:

spin your wheels (American informal) to waste time doing things that achieve nothing (often in continuous tenses) If we're just spinning our wheels, let us know and we'll quit. See also: spin, wheel Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2006. Reproduced with permission.

@BradC 2011-08-16 14:47:58

+1 because it is probably the most commonly-used American phrase that means (mostly) the same thing. There is a tiny bit of a connotation difference, in that "spinning your wheels" can sometimes imply that you are doing a useful activity incorrectly in some way.

@Art 2011-08-15 15:40:48

Sisyphean as carrying out a futile task repeatedly like Sysiphus, a Greek mythological figure that was doomed to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill in Hades as a punishment for defying the gods.

@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner 2011-08-15 16:01:52

You need to to more than just post a link.

@James P. 2011-08-15 23:36:01

How about, "Sisyphean as carrying out a futile task repeatedly like Sysiphus, a Greek mythological figure that was doomed to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill in Hades as a punishment for defying the gods" ?

@simchona 2011-08-16 00:57:57

I don't think this quite answers the question.

@Ellie Kesselman 2011-08-16 22:46:46

Actually, I DO think this answers the question rather well. Only problem is that it is identical to this answer english.stackexchange.com/questions/37997/… which was posted 2 minutes earlier than @Art posted his answer. That's very close, both could have been entered at the same time really.

@wilhelmtell 2011-08-17 01:18:08

Sisyphus didn't merely "endlessly roll a boulder up a hill". His punishment was to bring a boulder to the top of the hill. But every time Sisyphus was almost there, at the tip of the hill, the boulder would roll back downhill and Sisyphus would have to start over. In effect, it was a punishment of an endless futile work.

@Darwy 2011-08-15 20:42:15

"Carrying water in a sieve." is one I've heard used.

I've also heard the Newcastle, etc.

@Jay Elston 2011-08-15 21:12:28

You cannot carry water in a sieve, but you can bring coals to Newcastle.

@Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 2011-08-16 11:52:53

@Jay: you can if you apply a liberal amount of grease to it first.

@Zoot 2011-08-15 20:35:20

Programmers tend to use the expressions "yak shaving" and "bikeshedding". These expressions tend to be used in reference to losing view of the big picture and spending inordinate amounts of time on incredibly trivial things.

Another option is "gilding the lily", although it carries a connotation of an activity which occurs after a task should already have been completed, or has already been satisfactorily addressed by other means.

@Jon Purdy 2011-08-15 20:54:08

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

@Zoot 2011-08-15 21:01:25

The irony of using a term from Shakespeare as an American English equivalent to a British expression is not lost on me.

@James P. 2011-08-15 23:36:31

I learned something today :)

@Ellie Kesselman 2011-08-16 22:10:29

This really doesn't answer the question at all. None of the three expressions are uniquely American, nor are they specifically about futility.

@Zoot 2011-08-17 01:54:58

From the wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bikeshedding) bikeshedding: Futile investment of time and energy in marginal technical issues, often including annoying propaganda. --These terms are admittedly specific, but all of the activities are somewhat futile.

@user362 2011-08-15 18:36:01

Along with some of the others already posted, there's "Spitting into the ocean".

@Phil Perry 2014-06-24 17:35:34

There's also "salting the sea" (the sea is already salty, and it's too vast to really affect the saltiness). It can also be used as a euphemism for relieving oneself into the ocean.

@user11973 2011-08-15 18:30:21

"Bring sand to the beach." I have heard this many times, I am from NYC. I've heard it used most often to describe bringing a date to a place where there will be many women.

@Jay Elston 2011-08-15 21:09:43

Governments actually fund a practice called beach nourishment, which is, in fact, the practice of bringing sand to the beach.

@arp 2018-06-11 10:50:42

I've heard this as "selling sand to Saudia Arabia." (which has been done -- high-grade sand of a specific size for some industrial process.)

@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner 2011-08-15 16:00:29

I've heard "Watering the garden (or lawn) in the rain". The meaning would probably be very clear to most people but I strongly suspect it's not in common usage (except to the few people I know that use it often).

@CesarGon 2011-08-15 23:27:55

Oh, I once met a guy who used to do exactly that (water his plants under the rain).

@Toby 2011-08-15 15:38:29

"Tilting at Windmills" has a connotation of needless/futile. Although admittedly also with a connotation towards fighting unwinnable battles.

Sisyphean comes to mind as an adjective. This could be extrapolated as "pushing a stone uphill" but it tends to only be properly understood among more academic types, due to its roots being in Greek Mythology.

"Pushing rope" or "pushing a rope uphill" would be the closest thing I can think of that I've actually heard in conversation.

Swimming upstream. I agree with Frustrated. Wrong connotation.

@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner 2011-08-15 18:04:34

Swimming upstream implies difficult but not futile. Salmon need to swim upstream to spawn!

@Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 2011-08-16 11:57:39

+1 for Tilting at windmills, but it doesn't really fit the question fully. You can succeed at bringing coal to Newcastle but you can never succeed at tilting at windmills.

@Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 2011-08-16 11:58:05

Also, XKCD: xkcd.com/556

@Ellie Kesselman 2011-08-16 22:32:31

@Mr. Shiny and New The idea is that bringing coal to Newcastle is redundant, an example of something unnecessary. The question asks for an example of futility specifically. I thought Sisyphean was a GREAT answer. Same with "tilting at windmills". Both express utter futility of effort. Only problem is that they are not at all American expressions. But otherwise, best answer yet IMHO.

@Kit Z. Fox 2011-08-15 14:57:46

One we use commonly in our office is

It's like herding cats.

(To describe getting the academics to submit paperwork on time.)

Alternatively, there is "catching wind in a net" or "trying to empty the ocean with a bucket."

Or you could say it's a wild-goose chase.

@FAE 2011-08-15 15:10:38

While that is a very fun phrase, it's usually referred to imply the difficulty of a given activity rather than its fruitlessness. Neither carrying water to the sea nor coals to Newcastle are necessarily difficult, but they are both futile activities.

@Kit Z. Fox 2011-08-15 15:14:42

I disagree. Herding cats is an utterly pointless exercise precisely because it is impossible.

@KeithS 2011-08-15 15:20:37

This is a good one, but it's IMO pretty specialized towards organizational tasks, especially organizing other people.

@Kevin 2011-08-15 15:36:38

@KitΘδς, that's FallenAngelEyes's point: herding cats is difficult and therefore arguably pointless, whereas carrying water to the sea is pointless even though there's little or no challenge in it.

@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner 2011-08-15 16:07:29

@KitΘδς: There are exceptional cases (such as in a vet's office) where herding cats may not be pointless, but it is still very difficult (not completely impossible because I've seen it done).

@Ken 2011-08-15 19:25:34

I often heard this one in the context of managing programmers.

@starblue 2011-08-16 11:26:33

@mnemotronic 2019-06-12 17:12:10

Hey there buckaroos, herding cats is a noble profession. The original "Carrying coals to Newcastle" implies redundancy as well as futility. The "Taking sand to the beach" feels similar.

@Andrew Neely 2011-08-15 16:46:39

While not the same connotation, I like "nailing Jello to a tree", which suggests a futile act.

@Alger 2011-08-15 16:31:19

The phrase is in widespread use in America. I suspect that some of those who use it don't really know the origins of the phrase (and have no clue where Newcastle is), but it's in pretty common use.

@Alger 2011-08-15 16:31:53

The suggestions in the other answers are, by and large, phrases with different meanings.

@Rikon 2011-08-15 17:13:04

I agree with the author of the post... I have never heard of it... If it is an American thing, it's regional at best.

@Brian M. Scott 2011-08-21 03:35:01

@Rikon: I don’t think that it’s particularly regional at all; I’ve lived on both coasts and in the Midwest, and I’ve encountered it everywhere. I suspect, though, that it’s often acquired from reading rather than from surrounding speakers, so it may be somewhat sociolectal.

@Rikon 2011-08-22 01:10:39

@Brian, That may be so, but as my comment got (to date) 5 up votes, I'm obviously not alone. Granted my reading list is usually technical books or classics, so if this is slang you tend to read some where, we're just not reading the same things. I'd genuenly love to see this used in american literature just for my own edification!

@Brian M. Scott 2011-08-22 01:27:04

@Rikon: No, certainly not slang. To be honest, I’ve always thought of it as something that any reasonably widely-read person would have encountered, more nearly comparable to a common literary reference than to a slang expression.

@Rikon 2011-08-22 01:42:45

@Brian, assuming that I'm not widely-read, I'm just looking for American references in literature. The vast majority were all English. I checked wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selling_coal_to_Newcastle But all the references were British. I'm just seriously looking for any documented trend in American literature. Commically wiki says the phrase was started by an american.

@Kyle Pearson 2011-08-28 05:04:04

I've been through both University and Grad-school in the US, lived all over the South, and in much of the south- and mid-west and I've never heard it, nor read it.

@Kevin 2011-09-01 15:14:50

I'm with Kyle and Rikon. I was a military brat and so grew up all over. I was in the Army as and adult and travelled extensively then too. I'm also a big reader. I've never heard of the phrase before reading this question today.

@Jay Elston 2011-08-15 14:49:13

Here are a few:

"Selling ice to an Eskimo"

"Locking the stable door after the horse has bolted." (or) "Shutting the barn door after the horse has gone."

"Preaching to the choir" (a phrase originated by George Bernard Shaw in the play The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles: A Vision of Judgment)

"Giving a drink of water to a drowning man"

@F'x 2011-08-15 14:21:37

I don't think it’s specifically American, but I have heard the following been used:

@FAE 2011-08-15 14:25:38

"Beating a dead horse" has more of the connotation of doing something long after it's useless though, implying that at one time, there was still a point to doing it. Both "water naar de zee dragen" and "carrying coals to Newcastle" are already outright pointless.

@John Y 2011-08-15 21:58:41

@FallenAngelEyes: I agree it's not quite what you're after, but at least beating a dead horse is pointless and futile. This is more than I can say about several of the other offerings here.

@Ellie Kesselman 2011-08-16 22:43:21

Agreed @John-Y. I up voted.

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