1

What is the Americans equivalent for the following proverbial sayng which means: "to supply something to a place or person that already has a lot of that particular thing":

  • Carrying coal to Newcastle.

I know two other sayings, but I have no idea about their prevalence geographically:

  • Carrying pepper to Malabar.
  • Bringing sand to the beach.

Please let me know which one of my mentioned or presumably your new offers work in both BrE/AmE every day speech?

2

Carrying coal[s] to Newcastle is known in the U.S., but at this writing I cannot recall the last time I have actually heard it come out of anyone's mouth, either in real life or in films or television (I have lived almost my entire life in Southern California and the Mid-Atlantic region). I do see it from time to time in writing and in foreign usage. The same goes for bringing owls to Athens, a literary usage that would not surface in many Americans' everyday conversations, but one which people with a strong humanities education would recognize.

The expression may be falling out of use because it is relatively easy to devise a nonce metaphor or simile to express the idea of a superfluous or redundant supply: bringing wood to the forest, bringing sand to the desert, and so on. At this point, I would not even call these snowclones.

There are almost limitless possible variations, making them difficult to search for, but a few examples include

"Bringing this to Havana," says the Cuban doctor to Gnossos, "is like bringing bread to a bakery." — Vincent Canby, "Been Down So Long' on Film," The New York Times, Sept. 16, 1971

Besides, as my friend Rob Duncan told me one time, bringing a date to a wedding is like bringing beer to a keg party. — Kevin Faris, "The Best Man," Ace (Lexington, Ky.), January 10, 2002

In many ways, taking existentialism to China is like bringing salt to the ocean. —Jason Dias, "Better Than Food," Saybrook University blog, March 25, 2013

The place where you are bringing X needn't be an actual location or event; often, it is some hypothetical gathering of people associated with X: a party, a show, a meeting, and so on. In casual conversation, in a small group, you might hear something compared to bringing donuts to a cop convention, say. As you may imagine, however, it is extremely easy to give offense. I would caution against the use of such metaphors by learners altogether.


Similar but different expressions include don't bring sand to the beach and selling ice to Eskimos.

  1. The first is commonly an admonition against bringing a date to a party with mixed company; there will be other people to meet, and so the date is superfluous or even burdensome.
  2. The second (sometimes phrased using freezers, fridges, or snow instead of ice) is a way of characterizing someone's (strong) salesmanship or (weak) ethics for selling people something they have no need of. Note further that Eskimo is considered offensive in Canada (but not in the U.S.).
  • It was never an American expression. It is just known to those in the States with a lot of exposure to British English. I have never heard an American use it unless they expect their interlocutor to have a high level of general culture. I wouldn't throw it around at my local bar, for instance. (New England, seacoast town). – Lambie May 31 at 18:36
  • @Lambie For what it is worth, the Google Books Ngram does not show a significant discrepancy between the British and American corpora for "carrying coals to Newcastle." It's an expression that predates English settlement in North America, so "never" is difficult to establish. – choster May 31 at 18:54
  • Ngrams is for books. I was talking about speech. I have never heard an American say it. – Lambie May 31 at 19:05
1

"Carrying coal to Newcastle" is understood in America too, although it does sound archaic. The other two sayings may not be understood; at least, I don't recognize them.

(I've usually heard it with just "coal", but "coals" works too.)

1

Many have suggested that this points to a activity in futility whereas it is actually a comment on the lack of necessity. I was born and raised in RI and have been familiar with this phrase all of my life. I believe that those from the East coast (especially New England) would have a greater familiarity. I grew up in a home where coal was delivered through a basement window. Phrases such as "spitting into the wind" show neither lack of necessity or futility but more an act of ignorance. "Tilting at windmills" is an expression of futility.

  • Me too, but it's only exposure to BrE speakers that makes it known. – Lambie May 31 at 18:32
1

Carrying coals to Newcastle.

Is familiar to me, but although I am a US native, I have read a lot of works of BrE

This that should be understood widely might might include:

  • Bringing sand to the beach.
  • Bringing sand to the Sahara.
  • Taking ice to Antarctica
  • Importing gold to South Africa.

None of these have the idiomatic status of "coals to Newcastle", but they should get the point across, in any variety of English.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.