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All mouth and trousers

Q From Pete Jones, Brussels: I have always known the saying as all mouth and trousers. But Matthew Parris recently wrote in The Times about the tendency of the Conservative Party to use soundbites such as ‘All mouth and no delivery’. He said: ‘The phrase (surely?) is all mouth and no trousers. The Tory grip on gritty northern folk truths is uncertain, and there may be some mental confusion with all talk and no action or even all fur coat and no knickers’. Can you shed light on the subject?

A The form with the negative is certainly common. I can’t give you chapter and verse from direct experience, though I know that the BBC television programme Last of the Summer Wine — firmly based in Yorkshire — has always used your form, all mouth and trousers, as an effective put-down, by women especially, of a certain kind of sexually aggressive and over-confident man.

In the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green is also quite sure that the expression should lack a negative. He explains it as being a pairing of mouth, cheek or insolence, with trousers, a pushy sexual bravado, a fine double example of metonymy (“a container for the thing contained”).

I think Matthew Paris, like others who don’t know the origin of the expression, is trying to make sense of it by adding the no. And the other idioms he quotes are persuasive in supporting this faulty interpretation. It’s a lovely phrase, though, as good a put-down as anyone could want (all the better for being slightly obscure), and it’s one that ought to be preserved pristine. Eliminate the negative!

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Apr. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 8 April 2000.