April 06, 2007

All X and no Y

"All mouth and no trousers" was the headline on a story in the 3/31-4/6 edition of the Economist. This is apparently a UK expression that I've somehow managed to miss. The deck ("Are foreign firms as keen on Asia as they claim to be?") and the rest of the story make it clear that the meaning is same as "all hat and no cattle", "all sizzle and no steak", "all bark and no bite", etc.

But the mouth v. trousers variant is puzzling. The X in "all X and no Y" (hat, sizzle, bark) represents pretense, and "mouth" is fine for that. But the Y (cattle, steak, bite) stands for the corresponding reality -- and what's so real about trousers, especially in correspondence with mouth? None of the obvious answers belongs in an Economist headline.

A bit of web search demonstrates that the expression is a fairly common one, with variants like "all talk and no trousers", "all hype and no trousers", "all puff and no pants", etc., but doesn't explain where it comes from.

There's some evidence on the web that others are puzzled about this as well -- one reviewer on amazon.com says that the (rock band) Crimea is "posturing, all trousers and no action". So apparently there's a stage of substance even beyond stereotypically male garments.

[Kate Joester writes:

Yes, I think this is an occasion where the obvious answer is the one to go for - i.e., talks about his sexual prowess, but the action never happens in his trousers. Or out of them, presumably. It's really a very common British expression, to the extent that it doesn't carry the metaphor with it - I've heard it used in very respectable environments. More so than the Economist, anyway.

What? There are more respectable environments than the Economist?

Slavomír Čéplö writes:

In response to your post entitled "All X and no Y" on Language Log concerning the phrase above, I would like to direct your attentiont to this blog: http://mouthandtrousers.blogspot.com

and especially its "mission statement": http://mouthandtrousers.blogspot.com/2006/10/mission-statement.html

The phrase was also discussed in this post on languagehat: http://www.languagehat.com/archives/001381.php.

The mission statement in question quotes a rational explanation by Michael Quinion:

This strange expression ["all mouth and trousers"] comes from the north of England and is used, mainly by women in my experience, as a sharp-tongued and effective putdown of a certain kind of pushy, over-confident male. Proverbial expressions like this are notoriously hard to pin down: we have no idea exactly where it comes from nor when it first appeared, although it is recorded from the latter part of the 19th century onwards. However, we're fairly sure that it is a pairing of "mouth", meaning insolence or cheekiness, with "trousers", a pushy sexual bravado. It's a wonderful example of metonymy ("a container for the thing contained").

The phrase seems to have become known, and surprisingly popular, among southern English writers in the last decades of the 20th century, perhaps as a result of the airing of a series of television comedies based in the North, such as the BBC's Last of the Summer Wine. What is interesting about the saying from a folk etymological point of view is that its opaqueness has led its modern users to reinterpret it as "all mouth and no trousers".

Aha! Wow! etc. We should return the favor and re-metonymize some of the "all X and no Y" expressions to remove the negative: "He's all hat and cattle. She's all bark and bite." It works even better, I think.

And David Denison points out that I was wrong to look this up in the OED under "trousers", I should have tried "mouth":

Yes, it's quite a common phrase over here. Did you see this in OED, s.v. mouth n.20m?

m. colloq. to be all mouth (also to be all mouth and (no) trousers [cf. (all) gas and gaiters s.v. GAS n.1 5b]): to engage (habitually) in empty or boastful talk, to bluster. mouth and trousers: an instance of such talk or behaviour.

1955 A. SIMPSON & R. GALTON Television Set (1987) 47 Smarmy he is. Look at him. All teeth and trousers.
a1961 Time in Webster's 3rd New Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang. (1961) s.v., He is not all mouth..he gets results.
1966 T. FRISBY There's Girl in my Soup I. 15, I can't stand her. All mouth and trousers.
1986 T. BARLING Smoke ix. 174 `You'll cough,´ said Quill. `You've got more chance of growing a second navel,´ Vinnie hissed. `Mouth and trousers,´ Quill said and made fists.
1986 City Limits 12 June 10 You're mouth man. All mouth.
1987 Sunday Times 23 Aug. 7/1 Nor does it have a lot to say, unlike the lady herself, who as every film critic knows, is all mouth and no trousers.
1999 S. PERERA Haven't stopped dancing Yet xii. 161 Martin thinks he's got investors in Bahrain who're gagging for property, but Luxy's all mouth.

As you say, the all mouth bit is clear enough. Could the no trousers be a humorous glance at the emperor's new clothes? [But he wrote back with another opinion: My wife had a different take on the phrase. For her the obvious association was with " ... wears the trousers" (as in, "She's the one who wears the trousers in that house"). You can find some loose semantic associations from that too: no trousers => no power => can't deliver.]

By the way, I greatly enjoyed your April Fool spoof on GADHD, especially the authors' names, which I missed on first reading.

And Marilyn Martin points out that "all mouth and (no) trousers" belongs in the exclusive club of expressions that mean the same thing with and without negation: "still (un)packed", "could(n't) care less", "that'll teach you (not) to tease the alligators", etc. ]

[Cameron Majidi writes:

There's an unusual expression like that in one of Wodehouse's early stories. The book in question is Mike, which is set, like most of the early Wodehouse stories, in a public school.

The following exchange occurs between two students:

"If you must tell anybody, tell the Gazeka. He's head of Wain's, and
has got far more chance of keeping an eye on Jackson than Bob has."

"The Gazeka is a fool."

"All front teeth and side. Still, he's on the spot. But what's the
good of worrying. It's nothing to do with us, anyhow. Let's stagger
out, shall we?"

"All front teeth and side" is a nice humourous variant of the formula. "Side" in the sense of swagger or arrogance is now obsolete, of course, but I think we can trust Wodehouse as to whether it would have been known to an English public school boy in the late 19th or very early 20th century.

And I love that the one kid has the nickname "The Gazeka". A little light googling soon turns up the reference . . .

The phrasal template "all X and Y", as a way of indicating someone's essence in terms of a pair of salient characteristics, has lots of instantiations. Sometimes X and Y are both body parts or articles of clothing: "all knees and elbows", "all cheeks and dimples", "all flounces and ruffles", etc. And sometimes the Y is attitudinal: "all chin and courage", "all eyebrows and irony ", etc. In "all mouth and trousers", Y is both an article of clothing and an attitude.

Then there's the whole "anything/nothing but X and Y" pattern -- one memorable version is the remark "I don't want to see nothing but assholes and elbows", which is the traditional U.S. military accompaniment to an order to do something like scrubbing a floor or policing up trash.]

[Stewart Nicol points out that "All X and no Y" itself is a literal description of the sex chromosomes of mammalian females; and that a classic repository of pretense vs. reality metonyms can be found in Randy Newman's song "Big hat, no cattle".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 6, 2007 06:44 AM