There is perhaps no more frustrating feeling than trying to accomplish something and getting nowhere.
Many of us are familiar with the ancient Greek legend of Sisyphus.
The story goes that Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, was punished by the god Zeus for defying the laws of nature by cheating death twice.
Sisyphus was given a sentence of sorts. Zeus condemned him to push a boulder up a hill, then watch it roll back down, and then push it up the hill all over again, for eternity.
However, even though pushing a boulder up a hill forever is an extremely pointless endeavor, Sisyphus could actually push the boulder up to the top.
Not so for those who try to push rope! Try to imagine pushing a rope, or worse yet, moving something else by pushing a rope into it.
Even just the idea of it is frustrating! A rope will fold and bend if pushed, and nothing will come of all your efforts.
What is the meaning of the expression “pushing rope”?
To push a rope means to perform a thankless or fruitless task. Ropes, almost by definition, can only be used to pull things, not to push them. The expression “pushing rope” means to try pointlessly to do something that cannot be accomplished.
A “Sisyphean” task is something that can never be fully completed.
It makes you feel like you are constantly starting all over again from scratch and re-doing work that you have already done.
The expression “pushing rope,” on the other hand, refers to something that is fruitless or pointless from the outset.
A Sisyphean task can theoretically be done, but there is no clear end goal that can ever be fully accomplished.
A task that is described as “pushing rope” or “like pushing rope” is one where the actual action or behavior itself yields no results.
In these situations it is best to accept that it is how it is and not to try to make the impossible happen.
Consider the example of mopping a floor.
If you are mopping a floor and your children keep running back and forth across it, causing you to have to re-mop the areas where they have left muddy footmarks, you might describe the task as Sisyphean.
It is not that you are not capable of mopping the floor. You are! And just as Sisyphus could push the boulder up the hill, you can effectively clean the floor.
However, your efforts are being foiled and you are being forced to re-do work you have already done.
The situation would be different if you were trying to mop a floor that had deep grooves in it, which prevented you from reaching the dirt and effectively cleaning the floor.
If this were the case, you might say you were “pushing rope.”
Children or not, you would not be able to get that floor clean. It would be an impossible task. And dragging a mop over your floor would therefore be as pointless as “pushing a rope.”
How to use the phrase “pushing rope”
Sally: No, unfortunately, trying to get the water lines to connect was like pushing rope. The two piping systems just aren’t compatible.
Coach: I have to be honest, Shauna. Trying to teach Camille how to be a good goalie is a waste of time.
Shauna: Maybe you’re right, it is a bit like pushing rope. She’s just too short for that position.
Other ways to say “pushing rope”
Flogging a dead horse
The idiom “Flogging a dead horse” means to do something that will yield no results. No matter how hard you hit a dead horse, it will not do any useful work.
Banging your head against a brick wall
The idiom “Banging your head against a brick wall,” is used to express frustration that you have been saying or asking for something repeatedly but have not been able to change your circumstances.
The phrase is drawing a comparison between asking for something and receiving no response and literally banging one’s head against a brick wall in the hopes of getting through it.
It means to be unable to make headway, usually because a person or institution is being unresponsive or unhelpful.
Alison: I have been asking management to develop a better and more eco-friendly waste-disposal concept for a whole year, but no progress has been made at all.
Hisham: It sounds like you are banging your head against a brick wall.
Alison: Yes, that’s exactly how it feels.
Trying to push water uphill
This idiom has an intuitive meaning. We all know that water does not like to flow uphill. To say that you are pushing water uphill means you are trying to achieve a goal despite encountering enormous resistance.
Joanna: Why, does he really want a young puppy?
Emma: Yeah, he does.
Spitting in the wind
The idiom “Spitting in the wind,” means to waste one’s time doing something that has little or no chance or succeeding. It also means to try to do something that defies logic.
The idea is that if you spit in the wind, your spit will go nowhere, because the wind will it blow it back onto you.
Trying to extract blood from a stone
The idiom “Trying to extract blood from a stone,” has a slightly more specific meaning than the other alternatives to “pushing rope.”
This saying is usually used to describe a situation in which it is extraordinarily difficult to get something out of someone.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.