I'm looking for options to describe some course of action the overall result of which is very much at odds with, and even precisely the opposite from, what was intended. The word, "counterproductive" is somewhat synonymous with what I'm looking for, but it doesn't capture the sense of shooting oneself in the foot that I want. Here are some examples (but bear in mind that although they are all socio-political, and in areas of some controversy, that is because they best highlight the nuance I'm after; in the end, my question is only about English word usage, not politics!)

  1. Netflix recently released a Dave Chapelle comedy special in which there were some jokes that some people believe were detrimental to the interests of so-called "trans" people. In response, some people have staged protests to increase support of those interests. However, suppose those protests were to backfire and the overall result be a diminishing of trans support. Were such a backfiring to occur, we might say that the Netflix protests were counterproductive, but that doesn't seem strong enough.

  2. Suppose that the result of Edward Snowden leaking intelligence had actually been to make worse whatever it was he was trying to improve. Again, it may be true to say that his actions were counterproductive, but were the actual result to make things very much worse than they were before, I'd like something more emphatic.

I hope those give a sense of what I'm looking for. I want to convey a Homer Simpson-esque "D'oh!" when the unintended consequence becomes clear. "Counterproductive" lacks the sense of negative value judgment I'm looking for. I want something that connotes "you should have known better" in terms of culpability, and even the sense of "I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition!" in terms of the tragic magnitude of the own-foot-shooting that has taken place.

  • [better: were there to be any backfiring] Do you mean "Duh"? The overall course of action bombed.
    – Lambie
    Oct 25, 2021 at 14:54
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    I don't understand "Counterproductive" lacks the sense of negative value judgement I'm looking for. To my mind, the word "counterproductive" very specifically does convey an extra level of negativity over and above near-synonyms like "ineffective, ineffectual". Those alternatives simply mean didn't make things better, whereas "counterproductive" explicitly carries the much more damning / negative sense of actively made things worse. Oct 25, 2021 at 15:05
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    "Self-sabotaging" would seem to work. Oct 25, 2021 at 20:11
  • What is wrong with "backfire"? It's sure stronger than "counterproductive". Even stronger than "backfire" would be "to blow up in one's face". It doesn't necessarily have the meaning of "have the opposite effect", but it always means "had strong negative and unintended consequences", which is probably close enough in this context.
    – gotube
    Oct 27, 2021 at 20:25
  • @ColleenV, thanks for the edit. I was already concerned that the question was over-long.
    – tkp
    Oct 30, 2021 at 2:09

1 Answer 1


The word "counter-productive" accurate describes the idea that you seem to be looking for. Your concern seems to be that it is not strong enough. I can't think of a word that means the same as "counter-productive" but stronger. The straightforward solution is just to add an adjective to intensity it. Like "extremely counter-productive" or "disastrously counter-productive".

You could recast the sentence to use the verb "backfire". Like, "This plan backfired and caused them major embarrassment" (or whatever). That's stronger than "This plan proved to be counter-productive."

I briefly thought of the term "unintended consequences", as in, "This plan had unintended consequences." But that's not really the same thing. "Counter-productive" (and "backfired") are normally understood to mean that the results were the opposite of your intended goal. Like, you wanted to make yourself look intelligent but instead you made yourself look foolish. But "unintended consequences" means that maybe you accomplished your goal but you also caused something else to happen that was bad. Like, you passed a law intended to reduce pollution, and it did reduce pollution, but it also caused thousands of people to lose their jobs.

(And please note that I exercised great restraint and have not commented on the social or political issues in any of your examples!)

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    I wish I could give you an extra upvote just for the word "backfire"! I googled synonym counterproductive before commenting under the original question, specifically looking for any similar terms that also carried the made worse implication. But "backfire" wasn't there - presumably because it''s a verb, whereas "counterproductive" is an adjective. Semantically, though, to backfire and to be counterproductive are pretty close synonyms in many contexts. Oct 25, 2021 at 15:52
  • I've accepted this answer, but reluctantly. For whatever reason, "backfire" doesn't do it for me either, but it's probably the best there is. Bottom line seems to be, there is no synonym with the precise nuances I'm looking for. Ah well, maybe I'll borrow something from a "foreign" language. After all, English didn't have schadenfreude either, until we knicked it from the Germans. (Oh, and kudos on exercising restraint. I did too! :-) )
    – tkp
    Oct 30, 2021 at 2:13
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    @tkp If someone else posts a better option, my feelings won't be deeply hurt. Yes, you can borrow a word from another language or make up a word ... but then you have to explain it. Which interrupts the flow and can take away the punch. Like if you write, "George did thus-and-so, but it turned out to be totally FWACBAR!! By 'fwacbar' I mean that ..." Well if you were hoping to get a dramatic emotional reaction from the reader, that's not going to happen when you have to explain what you meant. If that's not an issue, if your point is more sedate, then a paragraph to explain it may be fine.
    – Jay
    Nov 1, 2021 at 14:29

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