(Hashi ni mo bou ni mo kakaranai;
“Can’t be caught on a chopstick or a pole”)
A work that’s just really badly made, or a person who is completely out of control. By extension, something or somebody about which, or about whom, there’s nothing that you can do. An unsalvageable situation. The image is of trying to snag something out of arm’s reach when neither a thin but short tool like a chopstick, nor a long but thick tool like a pole, is able to catch the thing and bring it to you.
We begin with noun 箸 (hashi), “chopstick(s).” This is marked as the indirect object of a coming verb by the particle に (ni). Jumping forward just a bit, we find the noun 棒 (bou), “pole,” “staff,” marked by the same ni. Each of these noun-particle combinations is followed by particle も (mo), which may be used alone or in this doubled form to mean “also,” “and.” And at the end, direct object elided, we find the verb 掛かる (kakaru), “to hang” (as well as “to depend on,” and a startling variety of other renditions depending on context). This verb takes the imperfective form, with negative suffix ない (nai) in conclusive form.
The final negative ending may take the older form ぬ (nu) without any change in meaning, although ない seems to be significantly more common.
Apparently some people are tempted to use this saying to describe a situation where one is at loose ends, without any indication of where to go or what to do next, but this is considered an error. 箸にも棒にも掛からない is for when you technically know what needs to be done, but the doing itself just isn’t practicable.
(“Inemuri shichatte, suupu sura kogashichatte, bangohan wa mou bou ni mo toku ni hashi ni mo kakaranai joutai dakara, chotto zeitaku ni gaishoku shiyokka.”)
[“I fell asleep and even the soup got burned; dinner is beyond the reach of any staff or especially any chopstick, so let’s splurge a little and go out to eat.”]