An idiom a day keeps your English okay! In this series we examine English idioms and teach you how to use them.
Don’t Cut Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face
To cut something off means to remove it. You might cut off the edge of an old cheese. You can cut someone off on the telephone (= end the call). Or if you are Vincent van Gogh, you can cut off your ear.
Spite is the desire to hurt someone. It’s when you have a bad feeling about someone. For example, if someone parks in your parking space you might scratch their car – that’s spite. Or if you are getting divorced you might give away all your money to charity – not because you are a good person but out of spite (because you don’t want your wife to get that money).
If you are angry at your face (yes, it’s a strange idiom) you might feel so angry about it that you want to slice off your nose. That would cause pain to the face. The problem is, now you made the situation even worse. Your face doesn’t even have a nose now!
So the idiom means ‘don’t make a bad situation worse by doing something when you are angry’, or ‘if you plan to do something to hurt someone, be careful that you don’t hurt yourself even more than you hurt your enemy’.
For example, if you are the boss of Apple and you are angry at the boss of Samsung. One way you could hurt him would be to pay President Donald Trump to ban the sale of smartphones. Samsung will lose billions of dollars! The only problem is, so will you. So by hurting Samsung, you also hurt yourself.
Or if you are babysitting two children. One of them tells you that his sister ate half of the cookies. You ask where the other half are, and the child says that he ate half. Now he is in trouble, as well as his sister.
– Oh! I’m so mad at Jack. I can’t believe he drank the last beer.
– That’s not very nice of him.
– I’m going to throw his car keys down the drain into the sewers.
– Um… but you want him to take you to the shops this afternoon.
– So? I’m mad at him.
– Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. If you do that, you’re just hurting yourself.
– Did you notice that Carolyn got fat recently
– I didn’t want to mention it… but yes.
– That’s because I secretly changed all the milk to full-fat, and it’s not diet cola!
– Why did you do that?
– I’m mad at her because she keeps making grammar mistakes.
– Well you drink that milk and that cola too, don’t you?
– Yes. Why?
– Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face… You’ve added a few kilos yourself…