Thursday, October 19, 2006

A mission statement

This blog is dedicated to preserving and promoting the great Northern English expression "all mouth and trousers". This mission, sadly, also requires defending this venerable phrase against the more recent Southern perversion "all mouth and no trousers".

The meaning and elegance of the expression has been well explained by Michael Quinion in his Port Out, Starboard Home (extracted here) -

This strange expression 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".

For example, an article in the Daily Record in 2002 quoted a Scottish politician as saying, "The First Minister is all mouth and no trousers"; a piece in the People newspaper described a pop group in the same terms; the Guardian in June 2002 said: "Bloody men. All mouth and no trousers.'' It has reached the stage in which the older, non-negative form is in great danger of vanishing, though Australia and New Zealand seem to be staying with it (when they use it at all, which isn't often).

Metropolitan writers are trying here to make sense of something obscure that they have not often heard in its native surroundings, and are getting it muddled. They confuse it with other put-downs that are conventionally phrased with a negative, such as "all talk and no action" or "all fur coat and no knickers". To have no trousers on is not only embarrassing, the argument seems to go, but is a state in which one is not ready for action (outside the bedroom, that is).

It's a pity it should be changing through ignorance. It's a lovely phrase, as effective a snub as anyone could want – all the better for being slightly obscure – and it's one that ought to be preserved pristine.


This blog will seek to recognise and praise use of the original phrase, and name and shame promulgators of the Metropolitan vulgarisation. Reports of such should be submitted to mouthandtrousers@googlemail.com

9 Comments:

Blogger zhoen said...

I promise to start using it here in the states. Properly. I know a guy who fits the description perfectly.

2:20 am  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I never heard it before - in either incarnation - but I love it!

1:24 pm  
Blogger language said...

I gave you a welcome here.

--language hat

4:35 pm  
Blogger Anne Denoon said...

Could the deformation reflect the Texan (?) expression "all hat and no cattle"?

6:06 am  
Blogger dearieme said...

How long before The Young americanise it to "all mouth and pants"?

8:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or, as we say in Texas*, all mouth and blue jeans.

*no we don't

7:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect the negative version is the illegitimate lovechild of the non-negative version and my all time favourite of all time, "all fur coat and no knickers". I support your efforts 100% (which, in Simon Cowell's X Factor world, is the mythical 1000%).

1:49 am  
Anonymous Andrew L. said...

Definitely using this.

7:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just heard this phrase for the first time in the movie "A Rather English Marriage", and I loved it. When I Googled to find out if it were a regular saying, rather than just something made up for the movie, I found your site. Soldier on with you mission!

4:04 am  

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