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I've been looking into the meaning of "ruin something for someone" in dictionaries, but cannot find any explanation.

I'd like to know what it means in the sentence:

"You ruined that song for Etta James. That is how good it was."

I assume that this means "You deflated Etta's confidence" or something.

What would you say? Thank you.

3 Answers 3

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As an addendum to Jack O'Flaherty's answer I would also say that in current popular parlance (especially on the internet), "ruining" something for someone means that all the enjoyment of the thing has been removed for that person... most typically in an exaggerated and over-the-top manner. It is almost never meant seriously.

"Bob ruined Game of Thrones for me when he pointed out the Starbucks cup they left on set. I can never watch another episode again!"

In the quoted example, the "ruining" is occurring at Etta James' expense. He is jokingly implying that the current rendition was so good, Etta James would be embarrassed or ashamed to even perform her song again, as it would just be a pale imitation.

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    An important nuance of this phrase if the "for X" part. A movie director might ruin a movie through poor directorship, a singer can ruin a song that they sing badly. I can ruin a movie for you by pointing out plot holes, or revealing spoilers - I don't really ruin the movie in and of itself (because I don't change it in anyway). It might remain a great movie, but I take away your enjoyment of it.
    – AdamV
    Nov 23, 2021 at 12:33
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    Given that she's dead, I think we would be quite impressed if she could perform it even half as well.
    – Barmar
    Nov 23, 2021 at 15:27
  • @AdamV Indeed, the specific meaning is very dependent on context and the relationships of the actor, object, and indirect object.
    – Barmar
    Nov 23, 2021 at 15:29
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    When I heard my 8 year old nephew play 'Layla' on his toy guitar, it ruined Eric Clapton for me! Nov 24, 2021 at 8:15
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    Something else ruined Eric Clapton for me a long time ago. Nov 24, 2021 at 17:14
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To ruin something is to degrade it to the point of uselessness. To ruin something for someone else means to make it useless for someone else.

In your example, it may mean that you sang it so well ("That's how good it was") that Etta James may as well not try to sing it (or sing it again if she has already sung it) because she couldn't do it better.
It sounds as if the speaker is trying to flatter the singer by exaggerating how good her singing was.

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    Etta James died in 2012. I think the sentence means 'Your performance demoted the Etta James version of that song from its position as my favourite'. Nov 23, 2021 at 13:11
  • For all we know, from the information provided, the quote could be from the 1990s. Nov 23, 2021 at 22:03
  • Never mind. Still applies. Nov 23, 2021 at 22:54
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I would have to slightly disagree with the two other answers. Instead of this being only in a joking manner, it can be serious or at least semi-serious.

I do agree with their definitions of what the phrase means, though, so I'm not going to re-define it here.

I've had gruesome movies put me off my meal, they "ruined it for me". One particular instance kept me from eating that same food for months, since it resembled what was on the screen and basically gave me flashbacks.

I've "ruined" songs for people by describing a funny alternate meaning to it, when they considered it serious, so they couldn't get my version out of their head when listening to repeat plays. I've ruined magic or movies by explaining the mystical aspect that drew someone to it. I've ruined advertisements for myself by realizing I don't need 99.99% of what they are about.

Most news shows have been ruined for me by their use of out of context soundbites, always showing only the worst news, pretending lies and political rhetoric are facts, or pretending that the news anchor or host knows better than anyone else and we should just believe their opinion. On the other side of that, I have found specific news sources that work hard to not be biased, show the whole story, are generally considered reliable by the large majority of people, and let me make up my own mind.

I've even had songs that were ruined for me by their own original singers, but were redeemed by another singer doing a remake. I may still not like the original, but at least the remake is still good.

When I was a little kid, my older sisters would try to get me to taste unsweetened baking chocolate when they made brownies or anything else that used it. After falling for it a couple times, it ruined dark chocolate for me, as well as my trust for my sisters. I will also hesitate to eat anything with powdered chocolate on it, but I still like chocolate in general. Even as an adult, I still hesitate to eat anything one of my sisters asks specifically me to try, especially while they are still making it.

There's plenty of leeway for something to be "ruined for someone" to be used in a humorous or serious way, as well as short term or long term. It can even be a targeted, specific instance of something being ruined rather than a broad dislike for everything related to that something. Just like most things with the English language, context is important here. And context can include non-verbal communication.

To go a little further, there's a similar phrase that you might run across: to be put off something. You could say that my sisters "put me off" dark chocolate by their pranks. It's a way to say essentially the same thing. This phrase, however, tends to be more of a long term or serious situation, but it can still be used for humorous or short term examples.

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