This week’s kotowaza was chosen, in part, to further demonstrate the use of the character 以 from Wednesday’s yojijukugo 以心伝心.
(Doku wo motte doku wo sei suru; “Use poison to control poison.”)
“One poison drives out another.” Sometimes something bad, something that you would otherwise have wanted to avoid, can be used to solve a problem. Chemotherapy or radiation therapy to cure cancer are probably the biggest example in modern medicine.
A situation where venom is used to manufacture antivenom, or a hangover is combatted with more alcohol, (or as a saying, “fighting fire with fire”) could also be described with this kotowaza, although it seems to mostly refer to poison X curing poison Y, rather than directly or indirectly being used to cure an initial dose of X.
毒 (doku) is a noun, “poison,” and the object (indicated by the object-marker particle を) of two phrases here. The first phrase, however, does not include a verb as such: 以て (motte) is a conjunction, and while there is some indication that the expression is derived from the verb 持つ (motsu, “to have”), 以て itself essentially has no verbal form in contemporary Japanese. As previousy noted, 以て can be rendered as “with” or “by means of.” 制する (sei suru, “to hold back,” “to control,” “to command”) is a bit of an odd verb as well. It falls into the broad category of irregular “verbs” that are formed when する (suru, “to do”) is tacked on to some other part of speech – often, as here, a noun.
In English, the whole becomes “By means of poison, control poison” with minimal distortion. Translation may be complicated, though, by the seemingly parallel construction broken by the lack of an actual verb in the first half.
This phrase also exists in four-character compound form as 以毒制毒, i.doku.sei.doku.
制する can be replaced by 制す, a common shortened form, or by 攻む (semu), the classical base form of modern 攻める (semeru), “to attack.” However, replacing 以て with 持って or 盛って (both also pronounced motte) is incorrect.
(“Sono eiga no teema wa doku wo motte doku wo sei suru to iu, dorobou ga dorobou wo tsukamaeru tame ni shutsugoku suru tokoro kara hajimaru rashii.”)
[“They say the movie’s theme is ‘use poison to control poison,’ and it supposedly starts with a thief being released from jail to catch a thief.”]