The context:

Someone wishes to punish somebody, and the wish is so strong that whatever they think will do a lot of harm to the one planned to be punished, they do it obviously at the expense of their own welfare, much higher than the prognosticated result of the punishment.

For example, in Russia, famous for its frosty winter, there's a saying which may be translated into English as "To spite my mom I'll frostbite my ears".

Is there an English idiom, maybe a couple or so idiomatic expressions, exactly or approximately matching the above-mentioned Russian saying?

  • Did you mean ...do a lot of harm to the one who planned to to punish... instead of ...do a lot of harm to the one planned to be punished...? Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 12:23
  • @VolkerSiegel - ...whatever (the punishment that) they think will do a lot of harm to the one (the person which is) planned to be punished.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 12:54

10 Answers 10


Cutting off your nose to spite your face is a stock phrase for this; Wikipedia says it's been in use for 800 years!

  • 8
    This would have been my answer also. I have to say, I find the Russian version much better, as it seems like something someone might actually do in real life.
    – ESR
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 5:43

One old phrase is

Hoist with his own petard

It is a Shakespearean idiom from Hamlet meaning "to cause the bomb maker to be blown up with his own bomb". Is used now to indicate that a plan has backfired badly.

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    This seems like it would only be applicable if the punishment was unwarranted or unethical, so that the punisher actually deserved to be the victim of their own punishment.
    – stannius
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 20:00
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    @stannius oh,yes. In that case, reading the question more carefully, "I'll take myself with him". Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 20:02
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    I was under the impression that one hoist by one's own petard was deserving of their fate, but it's not clear from a few minutes of research that that is actually the case.
    – stannius
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 20:17
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    @Rompey No, it's a common expression. I'd say that many people using it don't know it's from Hamlet, and many who do, don't know what a petard is. In current use a petard is something that people get metaphorically hoisted by (or even "hoist on his own petard" which demonstrates this as that makes no sense, considered literally). It's very much an idiom with its own meaning in current use. Indeed, if it wasn't for the rest of the passage, hoist would have made little sense in the original, since petards generally do damage horizontally rather than vertically.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 9:39
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    Where it falls down in relation to the question is that one won't intentionally be hoist with one's own petard, unlike the Russian idiom, or StoneyB's answer.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 9:44

There is, in addition to the above, the phrase "to fall into a pit [you have] prepared for another", which I think is Biblical.

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    This sounds more like it means the plan to punish someone backfired
    – user13267
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 1:27
  • @user13267 Correct. The other one is not punished. In the question (s)he is.
    – user22427
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 20:55
  • I have updated the meaning to clarify the phrase.
    – K.A.Monica
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 23:13

From the story: The Mouse, the Frog, and the Hawk comes the moral:

Harm hatch, harm catch.

Meaning: if you want to cause harm to someone else it will come back to you. I like this phrase because it's catchy.

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    Never heard of this story, or this moral. Is it Aesop? Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 16:10

There's also "Pyrrhic victory", in which you "won", but in the process did such harm to yourself as to practically offset the benefits.

"If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined." — Plutarch



The Biblical stock phrase is "kicking one's own feet against the goads" -- the implication that the goads are supposed to be pushed into the ox you're driving.

  • 6
    In the King James Version, the expression is "kick against the pricks". For some reason, that phrasing has never caught on. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 1:41
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    @Malvolio - azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnnycash/themancomesaround.html. So for us Johnny Cash fans, it's got a following. :) Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 20:24
  • @DonBranson -- where I first heard it too (on the soundtrack to the Dawn Of The Dead actually). Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 20:56

"Blowback" https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/blowback

This is somewhat more generic that just applying to punishment, but it fits.


"Shoot oneself in the foot" can mean what the above example means, but it is a stretch. In Wikipedia an example was made where two persons are arguing, and one of them is intending to report the other to administration, but they could get themselves in worse trouble than the other. The expression can also be used in ways that do not illustrate the above, where a person brings harm to themself by doing something ill-advised (a dumb move) without having wanted to harm another, as explained on worldwidewords.org. “Eric Partridge says that to shoot oneself in the foot dates from the 1980s and means a person has made a self-defeating, counter-productive blunder." Here is a similar example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from Aviation Week in 1976: “Why we seem to insist on shooting ourself in the foot over this issue, I’ll never know.” Finally, as discussed on worldwidewords.org, soldiers might shoot themselves in the foot to avoid going to battle. In "Death in the Woods and other stories" by Sherwood Anderson, 1933, a character discussed a man who had done this.


I don't know an idiomatic expression, but referring to Moby Dick will get point across that a person will meet his own downfall before giving up on revenge.

Even while his ship is sinking, Ahab, in his whaling boat, throws his harpoon at Moby Dick one last time. He misses, catching himself around the neck with the rope and causing his own drowning/strangling death. Source

However, while having a personal Moby Dick is a reference to an obviously impossible task to the reader, the captain Ahab didn't realize it because of his single-mindedness.

  • 2
    Dude, spoilers! Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 11:04
  • Wait.. Ahab dies in Moby Dick? Whoa... say it isn't so.
    – zipzit
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 3:51

The person shot (himself, herself) in the foot.

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