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There was the following sentence in the article titled, “Romney says inaccurate attack ad is fair” on IowaPolitics.com (November 23), which was studded with several expressions I’ve not gotten used to:

"What's sauce for the goose, is now sauce for the gander," Romney said. "(Obama) spoke about the economy being a huge burden for John McCain. This ad points out that, it's now your turn ... This economy is going to be your albatross."

The ad was rated “pants on fire” by Politifact, a Pulitzer-Prize winning project of St. Petersburg Times that checks the truthfulness of political statements. This rating indicates that Obama’s words were distorted.”

I can roughly guess what the phrase, “What’s sauce for the goose, is now sauce for the gander. This economy is going to be your albatross," mean. We have a similar (I think) Japanese saying: When you curse someone, you dig two holes to bury at the same time, one for him and one for yourself.

However, I’m puzzled about the use of "pants on fire" to serious issue like political and authoritatative research subjects, because my understanding of "pants on fire" is the phrase from children’s game or taunting – “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Can I say "What you are saying is pants on fire" when I don’t trust what my elderly friend says?

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PolitiFact give "Truth-O-Meter rulings": True, Mostly True, Half-True, Mostly False, False, Pants on Fire! –  Hugo Nov 25 '11 at 9:27
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It would be more suited to a jovial and mocking tone, rather than an serious accusation. I certainly wouldn't expect anyone in British politics to say something like that during a serious debate. Then again, there's always Boris Johnson. –  Polynomial Nov 25 '11 at 9:36
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Romney would have hit the Waterfowl Metaphor Trifecta if he'd said "if it looks like a duck, ..." –  JeffSahol Nov 25 '11 at 12:39
    
@Hugo. Per your input, I clicked ‘Truth-O-Meter ruling.’ ‘Pants on fire’ certainly comes on the extreme of false on its scale. I understood the phrase surely deserves taunt and rant, so that I shouldn’t use it naively to my friends. –  Yoichi Oishi Nov 25 '11 at 22:01

3 Answers 3

No, do not use the expression "pants on fire" to an elderly person, nor anyone you hold in high esteem, or want to show respect, deference or politeness.

This is a very confusing situation. First, Romney's comment is nearly incomprehensible to me. He used multiple metaphors, actually idioms, in a single sentence, which decreases understanding. Metaphors are intended to make concepts more accessible.

In addition, Romney re-worded an already arcane idiom. According to the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary 2nd Edition via the Free Dictionary,

What's sauce for the goose (is sauce for the gander)

is considered "British, American & Australian old-fashioned". Similarly,

What's good for the goose (is good for the gander)

is labelled "American & Australian old-fashioned". Both phrases are

something that you say to suggest that if a particular type of behaviour is acceptable for one person, it should also be acceptable for another person.

The reference to an albatross is an allusion to Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (written in 1817), a bleak and lengthy narrative poem.

Gustave Dore image representing the torments endured by the Ancient Mariner

To have an albatross around one's neck is a way of expressing some weighty burden. It conveys a sombre feeling, much like the illustration from the poem by Coleridge.

Somehow, Romney combined references to three types of water fowl in a single sentence! The matter is not helped by Politifact's use of a children's phrase, also antiquated. "Pants on fire" is part of a sing-song taunt addressed to a person who is deceitful. It is an odd choice for a service like Politifact.

@Polynomial made an assessment in the comments, about not expecting anyone in British politics to say something like that during a serious debate. That is equally applicable to American politics, or so I would have thought until now.

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Also British MPs aren't allowed to call each other liars in the House of Commons, as this would be "unparliamentary language"‌​. –  Hugo Nov 25 '11 at 11:30
    
@Hugo Thank you, that was great! I found another good one while I was there, "Semantic Enigmas". guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/category/0,,-13,00.html –  Ellie Kesselman Feb 2 '12 at 10:37

The full expression, used by children, is "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" It should not be used with an elderly friend. Instead, I suggest placing your finger on your nose and then extending it, as if you are playing a trombone. Simultaneously, say "Pinocchio!"

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Your understanding of it being a child's phrase is correct. It is used by PolitiFact in a deliberately childish and mocking way.

You wouldn't use it yourself in conversation, unless you were also trying to be deliberately childish.

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