Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

All Hat And No Cattle

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 27, 2013

When the nighttime soap “Dallas” hit the television airwaves again, viewers were treated to the expression all hat and no cattle.  For those who didn’t understand what the saying means, it means that someone talks big, but can’t back up what he says. In other words, the person is all talk and no action. The phrase is also sometimes heard as big hat and no cattle.

For those who think that it’s an obscure idiom, Bradley Blakeman (former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004, and currently a professor of Politics and Public Policy at Georgetown University) would beg to differ. Writing for Fox News on May 5, 2010 he wrote about President Barack Obama’s handling of the BP oil disaster, quoting such journalists as Michael Shear of the Washington Post and Joseph Curl of the Washington Times. The title of the article was:

Oil Spill Proves It’s Obama Who Is All Hat And No Cattle

A decade before that, the New York Daily News reported on January 16, 2000 that John McCain and George W. Bush were hotly debating Bush’s proposed tax cuts and the lack of funding for Social Security, Medicare and the U.S. national debt. McCain believed that Bush’s $483 billion tax cut was too big and favored the wealthy. In the end, McCain called the plan “all hat and no cattle.”

Back on December 15, 1977, Carl Hilliard of the Associated Press wrote an article entitled, “Finley Finally Finds A Buyer For The A’s.” The story was carried by a number of newspapers including the Argus Press. In the news story, Insurance millionaire Charles O. Finley had this to say about Oil millionaire Marvin Davis:

“Mr. Davis is not like a lot of Texans – big hat, no cattle. That man’s got the cattle. Horse manure walks, money talks. All these other people were walking around with their hands in their pockets. Mr. Davis took his hands out of his pockets and put the money on the table.”

The Albuquerque Tribune carried a brief news story about members of the British Parliament who were demanding an equal voice with the United States in the conduct of the Korean War. The story was printed in the June 28, 1952 edition and was aptly entitled:

Big Hat, No Cattle

According to the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, the phrase is found in “Agricultural Leaders’ Digest 25, No. 3” for March 1944 within the context of a joke. While Idiomation hasn’t seen that particular publication, we can only assume that the claim is accurate.

Even Forbes magazine claims that the expression is an old Texas saying, however, Idiomation has been unable to track it back any further than to say that if it was used in a joke in 1944, it was understood by the majority of people and must have been around since at least the generation before that, placing it squarely in the 1920s.

Interestingly enough, Idiomation did find an idiom that wasn’t far removed from the sense of all hat, no cattle and that was found in the Gettysburg Star and Republican Banner edition of October 12, 1841 wherein a journalist wrote:

All talk and no cider is the case with some women.

It certainly gives to wonder if the the phrase all talk and no cider is the precursor to the idiom all hat and no cattle.

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