Can’t squeeze water from a boiling stone

焼け石に水
(Yakeishi ni mizu; “Water on a hot stone”)

Definition:

A situation where you shouldn’t expect much. A drop in the bucket. A negligible amount of aid or effort, like a little splash of water against a hot stone, which quickly turns to steam and disappears without cooling the stone noticeably.

Breakdown:

We begin with the verb 焼く (yaku), “to burn,” “to heat,” in prenominal form and prefixing the noun 石 (ishi), “stone.” The heated stone is marked by the directional/location particle に (ni) as the target of the noun 水 (mizu), “water.” One can imagine that a verb (such as 掛ける, kakeru, “to throw something against something”) follows, but any verb is elided in the idiom itself.

Notes:

This phrase is apparently related to a 焼石 (yakiishi), a stone heated and placed inside a bowl of soup. Apparently one of these could be used to bring a meal to boiling without any need for direct heating from a fire, so it stands to reason that a little splash wouldn’t do much to cool one off.

The origins of this phrase are unclear, but possible sources I’ve seen cited include two 17th-century poetic treatises, the 世話焼草 (Sewayakigusa), and the 毛吹草 (Kefukigusa).

Example sentence:

「偉い弁護士を雇ったが、焼け石に水だった。むしろ逆効果だったような気がする」

(“Erai bengoshi wo yatotta ga, yakeishi ni mizu datta. Mushiro gyakukouka datta you na ki ga suru.”)

[“I hired a hot-shot lawyer, but it didn’t help at all. On the contrary, I think he made things worse.”]

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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