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I just happened to come across this idiom while reading a book a few hours ago; I've looked on some dictionaries but each one gives a varying definition of this idiom.

Take The Free Dictionary, for example:

"To do something that is very hard to accomplish, especially when dealing with other people in some way. Good luck getting a group of toddlers to sit still—it's like getting blood out of a stone."

Cambridge Dictionary, on the other hand, defines the idiom as:

to make someone give or tell you something, when it is extremely difficult because of the character or mood of the person or organization you are dealing with

What's with the supposed inconsistency with these dictionary entries? I still have a hard time trying to understand the true meaning of this idiom.

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  • For toddlers, I'd be tempted to use the more modern idiom, "It's like herding cats." ;) Jun 22 at 10:01

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The first definition is somewhat better because its broader field of meaning better reflects its broader usage.

The literal meaning represents an IMPOSSIBLE task of any kind. In your personal experience, have you found any blood in any stone you have examined? How confident would you be if you were told to get a blood sample from a piece of basalt?

As a figure of speech, it may refer to a task that is merely quite difficult to accomplish.

It is, however, my impression that the locution is indeed usually used to indicate a task the difficulty of which arises from a person or persons being averse to acting kindly. That is, the indirect comparison is between a human being with blood, empathy, and ethics and an inhuman stone with no blood, no empathy, and no ethics. The task to be done involves eliciting help from some person who is more like a rock than a person with normal human sympathies.

Asking that skinflint for a contribution to earthquake relief is like squeezing blood from a stone.

In short, the first definition talking about tasks difficult to perform is correct, but the second definition is correct that the application is usually to tasks that require eliciting cooperation from non-cooperative people. Notice that the first definition, which has no explicit reference to people, gives an example that is focused on a lack of interest in meeting a type of request, namely to be still, by a certain class of people, namely toddlers.

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    In the UK, if you were thinking of suing someone, who had no money or property, for damages, a sensible lawyer might well say that there may be little point, as 'you can't get blood from a stone'. It probably has a Latin name. This is a common way of talking about recovery enforcement against insolvent debtors in many civil jurisdictions. This happened to me when I was caused to fall off a motorcycle by a careless pedestrian, and my solicitor advised that she had no insurance cover, and few assets. Jun 22 at 7:45
  • also, one usually squeezes blood from a stone. It's impossible, but you're trying very hard and wasting your energy anyway.
    – user253751
    Jun 22 at 10:26
  • @user253751 - one can, of course, try to obtain, squeeze, press, force, produce (etc) blood from a stone, but in everyday UK writing or speech we tend to use 'get'. It's a customary fixed phrase. Jun 22 at 12:57
  • I am reminded of an eccentric English nobleman, perhaps in the 18th century, who set out to disprove or defy as many proverbs as he could. All I can remember is that he got very wet changing horses in mid stream. I expect he might have got some kind of very porous, spongy rock, stood it in animal blood for a while, wiped it clean, and then inserted it in some kind of press. Jun 22 at 13:14
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The meanings are correct actually. There are no contradictions in the dictionary, yes there may be some inconsistency, but let's take a look at that.

to do something that is very hard to accomplish, especially when dealing with other people in some way

This "some way" shows how difficult it is to deal with "other people".

to make someone give or tell you something, when it is extremely difficult because of the character or mood of the person or organization you are dealing with

This meaning is close to the first, where the person you are dealing with is very difficult. This dictionary just gave a slightly difference context of using character/mood instead of the general use of the first meaning.

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