Coals to Newcastle and missed boats

Taking or carrying coals to Newcastle is an idiomatic expression that means doing something that is completely unnnecessary, pointless or superfluous. The German equivalent of this is Eulen nach Athen bringen/tragen – to take/bring owls to Athens. Are there similar expressions in other languages?

Newcastle-upon-Tyne used to be a major coal mining area and the UK’s first coal exporting port, and was first associated with pointless activities in Thomas Fuller’s 1661 The history of the worthies of England: in which he wrote, “To carry Coals to Newcastle, that is to do what was done before; or to busy one’s self in a needless imployment.”

An idiomatic way of saying that you’ve missed something such as an opportunity or an event, is ‘I’ve missed the boat’ or ‘that ship has sailed’. In German, the equivalent is der Zug ist abgefahren – the train has departed. A similar expression is used in Swedish – tåget har gått – the train has left. What about in other languages?

By the way, a good place to find information about English idioms is: www.phrases.org.uk

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This entry was posted in English, Idioms, Language.

14 Responses to Coals to Newcastle and missed boats

  1. Edwin says:

    There is a similar saying in Chinese for ‘missing the boat’. It is ‘蘇州過後無艇搭’ (or ‘苏州过後无艇搭’ in simplfied). Literally, it means ‘There will be no boat to take after Suzhou’.

    Suzhou is of course the famous tourist place.

  2. Alex says:

    For “bringing coals to Newcastle,” the classical Hebrew equivalent (Talmud, Menachot 85a) is “bringing straw to Ofarayim” (a place known for its grain production). I don’t know if that idiom is still used in modern Hebrew.

  3. Interestingly enough, that idiom doesn’t translate well to America. I wouldn’t have known what it meant except for the definition you gave, unless the context had been exceptionally clear.

    Another American is going to have to think of an idiom with a place that we use similarly–I’m getting stuck.

    About the other one, I do hear sometimes, “That train has already left the station” in America, but you also hear “miss the boat.”

  4. Juliette says:

    I would consider “water naar de zee dragen” (= to carry water to the sea) to be the Dutch equivalent for the coals expression.
    There is even a lovely song by Boudewijn de Groot which features this called “Waterdrager”. (You can hear a sampling of the song here)

    Missing the boat translates literally in Dutch to “de boot missen”.

  5. Alain Vaillancourt says:

    It’s rather late in life that I learned of the futility of sending coals to Newcastle. Before that it was “just like selling freezers to eskimos”.

  6. Evans Knight says:

    I don’t know if it is related, but what about “bringing the mountain to Mohammad”?

  7. Podolsky says:

    In Russian they say ‘ехать в Тулу со своим самоваром’ ‘to go to Tula and bring a samovar with you’ – Tula is a town where samovars were produced.

  8. My tuppence on this subject:
    In Brasil we say “chover no molhado” – “to rain on the wet place” – for a superfluous activity. Our “to miss the boat” is “perder o bonde”, literally “to miss the tram”.
    Incidentally, the word “bonde” we use over here seems to derive from the English “bond”, because these vehicles came to be called for the bonds (stocks, shares) of The São Paulo Tramway, Light & Power Company, the Canadian corporation that was powerful (pun intended) around the turn of the century (19th -> 20th).
    In Portugal “bondes” are called “eléctricos”. The etymology is obvious. ;-)

  9. Two sayings I’m likely to use about useless things:

    I need that like…

    …a hole in my head
    …a screen door on a submarine

  10. Polly says:

    …a fish needs a bicycle.

  11. Ben L. says:

    There was a corporate training film produced in the US called “The Abileen Paradox”. It concerned people who, as a group, talked themselves into going to Abilene, Texas (USA) to eat dinner when none of them wanted to do so individually. Thus, in some corporate circles, “on the road to Abilene” has come to mean doing something pointless in spite of common sense.

  12. Iván Garcerant says:

    They’re many in Spanish, some of them:

    * “Arar en el mar”, literally: “to plough on sea”

    * “Llover sobre mojado”, as in portugues “chover no molhado” – “to rain over a wet place”

  13. Tadhg says:

    Yiddish: tregn shtroy ken mitsroyim, i.e., bringing straw to Egypt.

  14. Joe Sweeney says:

    Though this is not exactly analogous, another English example is “gilding the lilly.” It bears similarity insofar as redundancy is concerned, but differs I think in its more specailized connotation of taking an already delicate thing or matter and applying an additional layer of delicacy.