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What do you call a desperate attempt unlikely to succeed? For example, when other ideas have failed and you have one final go before giving up

13 Answers 13

48

We might call it a last-ditch attempt.

Some other similar phrases, that are not exact matches, include:

  • a final attempt
  • the final throw
  • going all-in

If it's almost certain to fail, we could apply the adjective futile.

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    (+1) for last-ditch. IMHO it fits the OP's bill completely. It expresses: "last attempt", "desperation" and "low probability of success". The other three aren't so spot-on, especially expressing "low probability of success". May 21 at 14:02
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    Going all-in doesn't imply unlikely to succeed. It can have connotations of committing one's full attention and resources to an effort because it's important or catches your attention, depending on how it's used. And even when it used to mean a final effort (as in the original poker meaning), it doesn't imply it's a low-percentage bet without other context. Closer in meaning to "bet the farm", which one normally wouldn't do on a low-percentage bet. As Lorenzo says, only last-ditch effort/attempt fits perfectly. May 21 at 15:56
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    I like last-ditch since it implies a different method, saved for last; whereas the long pass used in a Hail Mary isn't mechanically different from any other long pass. May 21 at 17:24
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    These all express finality more than desperation.
    – fectin
    May 23 at 12:36
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    "Last ditch" and the others here don't really confer the meaning of "unlikely to succeed". e.g., the ship is sinking, man the pumps, patch the holes, and as a last ditch effort we will beach the ship. Beaching the ship is not unlikely to succeed -- it'll definitely work -- but it's a last ditch because it has negative side effects and we'd prefer not to do that.
    – JamieB
    May 23 at 19:10
47

Such things are often called a "Hail Mary".

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    Yes, I think that's the best idiom, at least in AmE. (I'm not sure about how widely it's used.) A "long shot" might also work. May 21 at 5:20
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    As a (reasonably well-read) Brit, I wouldn't understand this term. (Unless it had sufficient context; but then you could substitute anything there if it had sufficient context…)
    – gidds
    May 21 at 11:00
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    @gidds I believe the phrase comes out of American football: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hail_Mary_pass
    – Teepeemm
    May 21 at 13:13
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    The phrase even lent itself to a book recently: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir May 22 at 6:05
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    The context is, in American football, when you have only time for one last play and you are far from the goal, you throw a very long pass and pray that one of your receivers catches it.
    – Caledon
    May 23 at 16:11
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Forlorn hope - a victorian British army expression for a group of men who would storm a breach in a wall. Any one who survived would get promoted or a reduction in punishment. As the name suggests it was very unlikely to succeed.

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    A forlorn hope was very likely to succeed, but any given man was very unlikely to survive. The purpose of the "forlorn hope" was to provide an opening for the follow-on troops, who would experience casualty rates typical for an open-field battle.
    – Mark
    May 23 at 22:29
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I think that a good way to say this is "a shot in the dark." It's defined here as "an attempt that has little chance for success."

It's idiomatic. It refers to firing a gun (or shooting an arrow) when you can't see the target. I think it contains the desperation and unlikelihood that you want.

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    I wouldn't understand a shot in the dark to necessarily be desperate. For example, if someone asked me a trivia question I knew nothing about, even my first guess might be a shot in the dark even though there was no desperation.
    – dbmag9
    May 22 at 18:30
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Such things are often called "a last gasp".

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/last-gasp

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/last-gasp

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  • In the medical domain, "gasp" is the name for a failed attempt to breathe; a pretty impressive display where the chest of an unconscious, non-breathing patient suddenly heaves violently without any intake of air.
    – Stef
    May 23 at 14:23
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"long shot" would also work

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Grasping at straws (Cambridge dictionary)

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In the game of Chess, when a piece is threatened and cannot be saved, it can often still be used to capture one last opponent piece or pawn of lesser value before it's taken.

Normally, you wouldn't want to exchange one of your pieces against a piece of lesser value; but since the piece cannot be saved anyway, that capture is its final throe.

Such a move is called a desperado.

By analogy, any last attempt before giving up could be called a desperado.

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    Merriam-Webster defines desperado to mean only the way I've heard it used before; a bold or violent criminal, especially: a bandit of the western U.S. in the 19th century
    – Chuck
    May 23 at 19:10
  • @Chuck You're right. And Wikipedia defines "desperado" to be the chess piece itself, not the final action of that piece. However, the way I explained it in this answer is how the term used at my local chess club, and searching for "desperado" on chess.stackexchange.com also seem to give result that agree with me.
    – Stef
    May 24 at 7:52
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Throwing kitchen Sink would fit your requirements. Last ditch effort is also used in the context, you have provided; but that does imply that the effort is likely to fail.

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    The usual phrase is 'everything but the kitchen sink' not 'the kitchen sink'. books.google.com/ngrams/… May 21 at 10:00
  • It's not included in the Lexico dictionary: lexico.com/… May 21 at 10:19
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    Is it a joke which has apparently become a colloquialism? Throwing everything but the kitchen sink means trying everything, so if you were to then throw the kitchen sink, that would imply that everything reasonable/likely had already been tried. The surprise (critical for a good joke), of course, is that the speaker omitted the 'everything but' from the cliche/adage.
    – user121330
    May 21 at 20:04
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    Good answer, the web confirms the colloquial usage fits the requested attitude: ecosia.org/search?q=Throwing%20kitchen%20Sink
    – eMPee584
    May 23 at 13:07
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Another option:

A last (or final) roll of the dice

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If you want to express annoyance at a person trying some action, you might describe it as a "flailing attempt". By contrast, a "Hail Mary" is a valiant action that's unlikely to succeed.

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A million to one chance, or a one in a million chance, while not single words are common phrases used to describe making an attempt against desperate odds. In fiction of course such plans always work. It is such a well known plot device that it was parodied in Terry Pratchett in several books.

Mort

Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one. But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.

Guards Guards

I mean, it's a good job we've got a last desperate million-to-one chance to rely on, or we'd really be in trouble!

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One could also call it a quixotic attempt.

  • "Quixotic" does mean unlikely to succeed.
  • It doesn't imply a last attempt, your first attempt can be quixotic.
  • It additionally means idealistic.

You can use it to describe an attempt to do something e.g. "They made a quixotic lunge for the fleeing cat.". Or it can equally describe a person e.g. "The quixotic scholar was hard at work and learning nothing."

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  • "Quixotic" means "impractical because it's too idealistic", not "impractical because you're all out of better options". May 23 at 18:18

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