The Telegraph has begun a series of excerpts from Port Out, Starboard Home by Michael Quinion, to be published by Penguin at £12.99 on July 1 (in the UK, obviously). The first begins with a good summary of various wrong ideas people get about where words come from and continues with a discussion of the marvelous phrase “all mouth and trousers”
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.
I look forward to forthcoming excerpts, and to the book. (Via Catalogue Blog.)