I used an expression for describing a really bad idea that already from start was bound to fail:

...that was a miscarriage for an idea...

In an answer, a person pointed out that he'd prefer another expression:

...that was a stillborn idea...

Both of us are admittedly non NSE and I under how those two compare in terms of rawness and wittiness. Are there an even better choice instead of those two? I lean towards AmEng, in case there's a cultural deviation.

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    I personally don't believe either of these can be considered witty and advise you are careful who you use either around as they could upset someone who has experienced either.
    – Gamora
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 15:56
  • @KonradViltersten If you use miscarriage, the normal preposition would be of: That was a miscarriage of an idea. Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 17:49
  • @JasonBassford Thank you for that input. I fear that the way I intended to use it didn't get through. I do not mean that it was a miscarriage of something (as in something that has been "miscarriaged"). I meant that the idea as an entity might be substituted for a plain miscarriage. If you compare to the (somehow rude) expression "he's shit for brains", that's the "for" I was going for. Given this clarification, do you still believe that I applied the preposition incorrectly? I'm not a NSE so I'm not arguing the case, just looking for advice. Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 20:06
  • @Bee Not sure what happened - I was sure I posted a comment but not I can clearly see it's gone. With risk of repeating the message - the point was that people who's been through things like that tend to be stronger than what others give them credit for. But we need to be considerate, still, of course. As for the expression - would you care to suggest something that isn't a literal stating the obvious but rather a stylistic rephrasing? Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 20:13

2 Answers 2


Both can be used, but imply different things. A "miscarriage" would apply to a project that failed to reach completion for some reason. A "stillborn" project is one that can metaphorically be said to have "died in the womb" as it neared completion, and looked at afterwards as not useful for its intended purpose.

Both are similar, but "miscarriage" is more of an active term, and is generally used when talking about the results. Perhaps the project it had a team of incompatible people working on it, who fought so much they didn't have time to make meaningful progress before the deadline. Perhaps funding was inadequate to produce the list of required features. Or perhaps management interfered so often by changing requirements that the project never had a chance to get off the ground.

Meanwhile "stillborn" might be used for a project that was flawed from the start and never had a chance to deliver its desired result.

Naturally the metaphor may be distasteful, or at least uncomfortable, without the appropriate tone (and, naturally this is not limited to English, as it would likely be the same in many other languages). To use this it would be best to convey a tone of regret, as with something very important to you that nevertheless failed to properly mature.

The team declared the project "stillborn" after they realized their initial hypotheses were inherently flawed, and decided to work on a different approach.

Although they had been making steady progress, the project suffered a miscarriage in its second year when the lead researcher had to drop out for medical reasons, and eventually the company was forced to cancel their funding.

In terms of your linked question, I agree that "stillborn" works better, as it's an idea that will never quite work. It didn't fail, but rather it had already failed, or was a failure from the start.

Some alternate metaphors:

dead on arrival (D.O.A): The project was declared DOA after their competitor beat them to market with a superior product.

(did not) bear fruit: Although the researchers tried every possible combination they could think of, their efforts did not bear fruit as they were unable to produce a significant result.

(Edit) I should qualify "stillborn" in response to your comment: You can talk about something being "stillborn" after the event. A "stillborn" idea is one that was figuratively born with no chance of being viable. For example, I might (humorously) conceive of an idea of training an army of cybernetic chimpanzees by training them with banana-flavored weaponry, only to be told it's a waste of time -- effectively "stillborn" -- because chimps prefer mangoes to bananas.

Similarly, you would describe a project as "stillborn" from the perspective of when it was "birthed", and assuming it had no chance to succeed because it was flawed from the start.

  • In the future, it's going to be DOA. This conveys what I want in a non-controversial way. That said, I'm a bit confused by you saying "stillborn" works better because previously you mention something like project that was doing well. My intention was to convey that the attempt of mine was not doing well and that I expected it to fail miserably (which it did). Given that, miscarriage would be a better choice. Please advise what I'm missing. (A moot point given that I'll be using DOA now but I'd still like to know.) Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 20:20
  • @KonradViltersten I realized my examples for "stillborn" were incorrect, and I've edited my answer to clarify. A "stillborn" project is one that may be ongoing, but which was so flawed from the start that it never really had a chance to succeed.
    – Andrew
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 15:30

Medically, a "miscarriage" is when a baby dies during any stage of pregnancy. "Stillborn" is typically only used to describe a baby born dead fairly late in pregnancy. Like if a baby died while still an embryo, so that all that is visible is some blood and maybe a fragment of tissue, that would be a miscarriage, but we wouldn't say that baby was stillborn. If a baby dies in the last few months of pregnancy, so that there is an obvious dead baby delivered, that is a stillbirth.

As a metaphor, it's not uncommon to say something like, "This project was a big miscarriage", meaning, the project failed and was never completed. Like a baby who dies before being born, the project died before their was anything to show for it.

I don't recall ever hearing someone say, "This project was stillborn." If they did, I guess I'd picture in my mind that they produced something tangible -- they really did build a prototype car or software product or whatever -- but it never worked. But that's just my intuition, I don't think there's any generally-recognized idiom or metaphor there.

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