Do say: He’s all mouth and trousers
Don’t say: He’s all mouth and no trousers
Here in the UK, a frequently – and annoyingly – misspoken phrase is ‘He’s all mouth and no trousers‘, which should, of course, be ‘He’s all mouth and trousers‘. The misspeakers are over-excitedly confusing it with – and accidentally borrowing the form of – the racy phrase, ‘She’s all fur coat and no knickers‘.
Despite being a mistake (or misspeak), ‘All mouth and no trousers’ has unfortunately entered into common usage, and must therefore be allowed some meaning, if possible.
It could, perhaps, mean a braggart who’s shortcomings are inadvertently exposed by his metaphorical (and, presumably, accidental) lack of trousers. However, presumably he’d be wearing metaphorical underpants – which would conceal any shortcomings.
Or perhaps the embarrasing lack of trousers shows that his boastful claims can’t be taken seriously, because they lack the substance that would be metaphorically indicated by his dressing properly – ie, by wearing trousers.
Neither explanation makes much sense. The wrong version has no real meaning, is clearly a corruption of the original phrase, and lacks the original’s muscular metaphorical resonance.
It’s clear that the misspeakers don’t understand the meaning of the correct phrase. The sister phrase, ‘All fur coat and no knickers’ needs no explanation – but ‘all mouth and trousers‘ apparently does. What it means is that the man referred to is inclined to bragg (all mouth) and to exaggerate (all trousers).
So why does ‘all trousers‘ mean exaggeration? It refers, of course, to metaphorically voluminous trousers, concealing metaphorically uneceptional genitals, the size of which has been metaphorically exaggerated.
The loose trousers conceal the truth, and the supposedly large genitals are, in fact, ‘all trousers’ – just as a conjuror’s illusion is said to be ‘all smoke and mirrors‘.
Hence: all mouth and (all) trousers. Crude, certainly – but at least meaningful.
Afterthought: The metaphorical resonance of this phrase probably runs deep. Bragging of this sort perhaps goes back to early human mate-selection behaviour. Large genitals are traditionally associated with the desirable qualities of bravery and virility. Female discernment, as perhaps expressed by this phrase, is an essential part of finding a suitable mate. Nah, not him – he’s all mouth and loin cloth. (Mating/dating tip for insecure modern men: honesty is also a desirable quality.)
Postscript: Even sadly-departed master wordsmith Terry Pratchett (author of the mostly brilliant but snobbishly underrated Discworld series) got it wrong.
In Raising Steam, genius engineer Dick Simnell tells genius conman/entrepreneur Moist Lipwig that when he first met him, he thought he was all mouth and no trousers. There’s not even an amusing footnote about how people get that wrong. That’s disappointing, Sir Terry. RIP, though.
Fellow Pratchett fans may object that any such mistakes should be excused because Raising Steam was published in 2011, four years after Pratchett had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He had a rare form of posterior cortical atrophy (PCA).
However, In 2012 Pratchett stated in an interview that the cognitive part of his mind was untouched, and that his symptoms were physical. (This is apparently normal for PCA. However, PCA can spread, causing loss of cognition.)
In 2008, Pratchett revealed that by then he found it too difficult to write dedications when signing books. Subsequently, he wrote by dictating to his friend and assistant, Rob Wilkins, or by using speech recognition software. Let’s blame the software – and Pratchett’s editor, who shall be nameless (mainly because I can’t be bothered to find out their name).
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