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“All hat and no cattle” (R.I.P. Larry Hagman)

The venue for this year’s TESOL Convention evokes memories of the long-running TV series about the Texas oil business. When Dallas was first aired on British TV in 1978, it brought a touch of glamour to a rather gloomy U.K., then (as now) in the grip of economic recession. The fast cars, cowboy hats, gushers, and big hair were exotic enough, but the show’s most compelling feature was the endless machinations of everyone’s favourite TV villain, J.R. Ewing.

Among his many talents (deviousness, cynicism, ruthlessness, and so on) J.R. had a way with words, and a great line in bon mots – some of which are collected here. Typical examples include “Never tell the truth when a good lie will do” and “A conscience is like a boat or a car. If you feel you need one, rent it.”. And (showing an unexpected interest in lexicography) this insult directed at his arch-enemy Cliff Barnes: “Look up the word cheap in a dictionary, and you’ll see his picture there”.

One of his best put-downs was to describe someone as “all hat and no cattle”. I had never heard this until I watched Dallas, but it seems to be a Texan variation on the versatile combination “all [noun1] and no [noun2]”. This is a common formulation, with almost 1000 instances in our corpus. They often start from a well-known phrase or expression. You can say that someone’s bark is worse than their bite, and it’s a short step from here to saying that they are “all bark and no bite”. Similarly:

“Are you going to give us one of your cloak and dagger tales?” “It’s all cloak and no dagger, I’m afraid.”
It was the usual sort of bomb scare, all scare and no bomb.

Many are one-of-a-kind coinages (bullies who are all bluster and no muscle; prove you’re all zinger and no minger by emailing your picture) but there are plenty that recur frequently, and they seem to fall roughly into three categories.

The first type describes a situation where you would expect a balance between two complementary elements, but in fact only one of them is present. The most obvious example is “all work and no play”, which is so frequent that it may well be the original template for expressions like this. Other members of this set include “all carrot and no stick”, “all pros and no cons”, “all pain and no gain”, and “all brawn and no brain”. (Notice, too, the bias towards assonance.) A second group sets up a contrast between what someone has promised (or threatened) to do, and their failure to deliver. Examples include the very common “all talk and no action”, as well as “all bark and no bite”, “all spin and no delivery”, and (a popular one in the U.K.) “all mouth and no trousers”.

In the third and most productive set, the speaker makes an unfavourable comparison between an impressive exterior and the disappointing reality beneath. For example: We scoffed “scones” at the island’s poshest pub (all decor and no service). It’s a warning against being duped by the outward appearance of something (or someone), and there is a large set of options available, including:

all style/froth/image and no substance
all flash and no dash
all packaging and no content
all show and no go
all icing and no cake
all fur coat and no knickers [don’t ask]

… and of course old J.R.’s unforgettable “all hat and no cattle”.

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Michael Rundell


  • Googling the expression “all mouth and (no) trousers” quickly reveals that it is the topic of animated debate, particularly as regards the original form (widely agreed to be simply “all mouth and trousers”). There is even a blog ( dedicated to “preserving and promoting the great Northern English phrase ‘All mouth and trousers’ against barbarism and neglect”.
    The most recent post was over a year ago, but whether this indicates that the fight has been lost or won, or that the author has simply found a different cause to champion is unclear.

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