To spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar

Montesacro

Senior Member
Italiano
Hallo everybody!


You can say that Jim 'spoilt his ship for a ha'porth (half penny worth) of tar'. The image is of someone who has a small hole in his ship, and to save money he doesn't fill it with tar, and the water comes in and causes damage.
You can also call this a 'false economy' - it looks like saving money but instead it wastes money.
To spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar

I've found this old proverb cited in an old thread. Generally speaking it should mean losing something important because some trivial thing deliberately has not been done.

An example:

A horse race. John is 99% sure that number 8 is going to win (odds 100 to 1) because he knows the race has been fixed, but he thinks there’s a small possibility that things could go wrong so he deliberately decides not to bet (not even a penny!). Number 8 wins the race. John has spoilt the ship for a ha’porth of tar.

Can it also mean losing something important because some trivial thing accidentally has not been done?

An example:

A horse race. John is 99% sure that number 8 is going to win (odds 100 to 1) because he knows the race has been fixed, but he has no money so unfortunately he can’t bet. Number 8 wins the race. Has John spoilt the ship for a ha’porth of tar?


Or have I got it all wrong?:)
 
  • ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Ciao Montesacro.
    Well, I definitely wouldn't use it for the second example ~ yes, the phrase suggests a certain deliberateness in the spoiling.
    And I'm not entirely sure I'd use it in your first example either: somehow it just doesn't 'sit' right ~ there's no real 'spoiling' of anything involved. (I'd be more likely to say here He cut his own nose off to spite his face.)
     

    JamesEB

    Senior Member
    USA/English
    I don't think so, since the proverb implies intent, and in particular a sort of misguided stinginess.

    That being said, I can't think of an analogous proverb to fit the second example you gave.
     

    bibliolept

    Senior Member
    AE, Español
    I don't think I would use it to refer to an accidental situation.

    This reminds me of the rhyme "For want of a nail," where the lack of a single nail eventually leads to the loss of an entire kingdom.

    You might also relate it to the aphorism: "A stitch in time saves nine."
     

    JamesEB

    Senior Member
    USA/English
    Actually, I think Bibliolept's got it. Because you could say, with respect to the second example, that "John could've won a fortune at the track 'but for want of a nail.'"
     

    Montesacro

    Senior Member
    Italiano
    Thanks everybody for your quick replies. :)

    By the way I've found out the ship in the proverb might indeed be a sheep!
    It seems that in the past tar was also used to heal sheep's wounds...
     

    mjscott

    Senior Member
    American English
    Yes, but does the sheep fit into the context of what you're saying? (It's a good thing to ask every time you are translating something.)

    If he had only spent half a penny more on tar, the ship would have held and not taken on water. Because of that half-pence, the ship took on water and sank!

    I think the frugalness of trying to save money will sometimes lose you more money in the end. I would have used but for want of a nail to describe the same sort of situation, but I wouldn't have used "shot himself in the foot."
     

    Montesacro

    Senior Member
    Italiano
    Yes, but does the sheep fit into the context of what you're saying? (It's a good thing to ask every time you are translating something.)
    Yes, of course.
    If he had only spent half a penny more on tar, the sheep wouldn't have died. Because of that half-pence, the sheep's wound worsened and in the end the animal passed away! ;)
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    This site bears you out about the 'sheep' origin, Montesacro.

    I always thought it had something to do with caulking ships' timbers...

    You live and learn, especially here!
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    I would have used but for want of a nail to describe the same sort of situation, but I wouldn't have used "shot himself in the foot."
    I in turn wouldnt've used but for want of a nail, as it's not an expression I'm familiar with. (The rhyme at the link above rang very faint very distant bells, but I don't recall coming across it in the last 30-odd years)

    A related expression would be "Penny wise, pound foolish" ~ I don't know that one either! ~ though it's reminiscent of Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves
     
    Last edited:

    EdwardRaven

    New Member
    Italian
    Hi, I'm new here :)

    So, given this question:

    21. To spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar.
    a) To fail because of a minor parsimony.
    b) To reduce the value of the object.
    c) To cause the object to deteriorate through lack of investment.
    which one is the right answer? A? Or can it also be C?

    I'd say A, but I'm not 100% sure and I wanted your opinion. ;)

    Thanks.
     
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