The recent EL&U question asked by Mikhail about the alternative expressions of ‘To shoot out of cannon into sparrows’ reminded me of Japanese saying - 大山鳴動鼠一匹- literally meaning people find (get) “Only a small mouse coming out after hearing rumblings and experiencing shaking of the big mountain, (and jumping out of the house)” which I believe was imported from Chinese classic literature.

I think it has a different meaning from “Shoot sparrows with cannon” and “Chop a chicken using the blade for cow.” Instead it means “a very small result attained with great effort” or “marginal consequence or gain after making a big fuss”

Are there similar English sayings to express “大山鳴動鼠一匹 - Big fuss, tiny result”?

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    Funny, the Japanese saying exists, 1:1, in German as well: “Der Berg kreißte und gebar eine Maus”. It’s apparently derived from Latin (Horace: “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus” – “the mountains are in labour, they will bear a ridiculous mouse”). Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 11:57
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    @KonradRudolph The proverbial English translation is "The mountains laboured and brought forth a mouse". Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 14:21
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    @KonradRudolph that's most definitely not a popular english saying.
    – Rob
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 16:32
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    @Yoichi: I must admit I'm surprised to see we still don't seem to have an everyday expression with exactly the meaning I assume you're looking for. Most of our idioms so far imply disproportionate reaction to something [slightly] bad that has arisen, rather than disproportionate effort required to achieve some insignificant benefit. But I think dpatchery's "I [made a lot of effort] and all I got was this lousy [t-shirt]" comes pretty close. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 18:50
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    I've heard cricket commentators say "big boast, small roast"
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 22:20

20 Answers 20


I think Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is quite relevant. In more contemporary English "a lot of fuss [over/about] nothing" means the same thing.

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    Same drawback as storm in a teacup - these are expressions normally used where the "fuss" is a reaction to some trivial but unwanted situation, rather than a [disproportionately small] goal/end result of much effort. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 4:43
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    It's a poetic saying, however, I can't help but remember that the title is a double entendre on a bit of old slang. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 4:56
  • @FumbleFingers- I added another answer that might be more satisfactory. Let me know what you think.
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 6:07

I have heard people speak of "making a molehill out of a mountain" (an inversion of the more common "making a mountain out of a molehill").

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    It's the original, "making a mountain out of a molehill" that's wanted here.
    – Max
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 15:34
  • @Max I'm trying to sort out whether I agree with you or not. Depending on how you twist it, either version of the aphorism could work. At any rate, I think Jim's Much Ado About Nothing is the answer here.
    – JAM
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 19:11
  • "Making a molehill out of a mountain" is making very little fuss (a molehill) about something big (a mountain)
    – Max
    Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 7:47
  • General comment about the flexibility/ambiguity of English: my answer and @Max's comment have at the time of writing the same number of up votes. Fascinating!
    – JAM
    Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 17:45

I'm not certain it meets OP's exact definition, but a storm in a teacup* might fit. It's usually used where the fuss is over some undesirable thing, rather than a trivial but (slightly) desired outcome.

Another possibility is don't sweat the small stuff (used to tell people not to worry about trivial or unimportant issues). It can be used as don't expend too much effort [to achieve some trivial gain], but it's normally advising what not to do, rather than a description of what you did for little gain.

There's always this graffiti, commonly found on the walls of UK public toilets...

Here I sit broken hearted,
Paid a penny and only farted

In practice, I think the most common phrasing is just a lot of effort for little reward, but in my particular neck of the woods I often hear life's too short to stuff a mushroom.

*As I've just discovered, the American version of this is very definitely tempest in a teapot.

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    "Tried to shit but only farted" is how I've heard it on this side of the pond.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 7:18
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    FumbleFingers. I can really, really sympathize with the feeling, ‘Paid a penny and only farted’ in recollection of the days I studied in China long time ago, and used to use paid toilets in downtown and the provinces there. I think I paid 3角 (0.3 yuan) at a time. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 11:56
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    Interesting. I've always heard this (in the USA) as "tempest in a teapot".
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 16:06
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    @FumbleFingers it's always baffled me why the British didn't stick with the "tempest" version. The alliteration is so much more satisfying, and an excellent counterbalance to its mountain/molehill cousin.
    – nohat
    Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 6:19
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    I'm kinda with you Brits on this one, simply because the word "tempest" is otherwise so rare over here that most folks don't even know what it means. Its far more practical to use the modern word. Still, its a shame to lose such a neat word, so I guess I'm glad we kept it. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 17:31

Perhaps Shakespeare's oft quoted line from Macbeth

. . .it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The full quote is an even more dramatic commentary on an entire life being lived to little outcome

Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

  • Hey, look, one I've heard before! +1 for the part of the Macbeth quote in the first quote block. It's close, at least.
    – Izkata
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 19:18

I think "all heat, no light" carries a similar meaning, and is usually used specifically in connection with debates and discussions, as in a "heated discussion" that does not result in any insights (i.e., "no light").


Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

  • Similar: Using an elephant gun to kill a gnat. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 15:19
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    This seems amongst the most appropriate and idiomatic answers. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 15:20
  • @EdwinAshworth in that case the question as a whole is a duplicate. A vote for this answer is a vote to close. Meanwhile the OP expressly states that he is not looking for people to repeat answers from that older question.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 15:32
  • Note that it is not easy to find the older question to which the OP refers simply by reading the question. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 16:38
  • I was unaware of an older question or the OP stating that we shouldn't repeat answers from it. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 17:12

Wild-goose chase is close — although it would be usually be interpreted as "big fuss, no results", it is sometime used when there is a successful conclusion in spite of the twisted turns of the process.

For a less poetic, but common phrase, more effort than it’s worth and more trouble than it’s worth spring to mind.


Virtually the same thought was, as Konrad Rudolph points out, expressed in Latin by Horace, Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus, and through frequent quotation the idea has become proverbial in English. Here's a collection of usages:

When I such guests did see come out of such a house, The mountaines great with childe I thought brought foorth a mouse. - Sidney, Arcadia ca 1580

But I doubt (ſays G.R.) *it will prove but a Mouſe brought forth by the long labour and hard throes of Mountain. —Sage, Fundamental Charter 1695

All parties united in patching up a reconciliation, to avoid the laugh that muſt ever follow, when “A mountain in labour has brought forth a mouſe.” —Sporting Magazine 1793

Like the mountain in the fable, it seems to me, the Ways and Means Committee has labored and brought forth a mouse in the shape of the Payne bill—a miserable makeshift and the merest aplogy for real tariff reform. —Speech in US Congress 1909

Common Cause, the self-appointed, so-called “citizens lobby”, which is a mountain among the other self-appointed, so-called “citizens lobbies” in this city, has labored mightily and brought forth a mouse. —Newspaper column 1977

The Debt Mountain Labored and Brought Forth a Mouse —headline in National Review Online 2011


You could call this

A tempest in a teapot

That is a very common expression.

There is a similar expression in Japanese: コップの中の嵐. Does that have the same feeling to you?

  • Rubusto-san. The literal translation ofコップの中の嵐is “Tempest in a glass.” To me 'コップの中の嵐' seems to be a bit different from '大山鳴動鼠一匹.' The former means ‘to make a fruitless quarrel by making a great fuss in the same group or organization,’ like chronic internal conflict in Japan’s Democratic Party who lost to LDP in the latest Lower House election, because people were fed up with their internal skirmish, while the latter means ‘Big fuss, tiny result – Much ado about nothing’ Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 8:38
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    I've heard this more commonly as "storm in a teacup", but yes.
    – Kaz Dragon
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 8:49
  • "Een storm in een glas water" (Storm in a glass of water) in Dutch.
    – flup
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 13:47
  • Just to say I didn't crib this one off you - I added it a couple of hours ago after T.E.D. had commented on my answer that he was more familiar with (what I now know to be) the US version of UK storm in a teacup. But I've just scrolled down to see if anyone's already mentioned don't sweat the small stuff, to discover there are a lot more answers now than there were before. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 18:38
  • @FumbleFingers: Well, you could have given attribution in your answer instead of burying it in a comment here.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 18:42

"All hat and no cattle." --- From Texas! :-)

The direct interpretation is that the person dresses like a rancher or cowboy (i.e. has a ten gallon hat), but does not own any cattle.

The implied meaning is that the person is all talk and no substance.

  • 1
    Beautiful! I love it. But I'm a little suspicious of its meaning being "showing off but having no substance," as of someone who makes an ostentatious display of talent or wealth but has it not. Could you please elaborate on the meaning of the phrase?
    – Sathyaish
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 13:24
  • @Sathyaish: Done!
    – Peter K.
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 14:03
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    I love this one too (as an Okie who has actually worked cattle), and went into this Q specifically looking for it. However, I can't bring myself to upvote it here because its more about being a complete loudmouth poseur than about something turning out to not be quite as big a deal as made out.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 16:09
  • the British version is all mouth, but no trousers
    – SeanC
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 22:20
  • @downvoter: Any comment as to why the downvote?
    – Peter K.
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 22:27

It's more of a meme or trope than a common idiom, but the first thing that came to my mind was the Lousy Shirt.

If you were to generalize it and say something like this, I think most english speakers would understand the reference.

I [made a big fuss] and all I got was this lousy [result]!


There is also the "without much to show for it" expression.

This can be combined with many different verb phrases:

For example:
We put forth a huge effort without much to show for it.
We've spent millions and don't have much to show for it.
He stayed up all night studying but doesn't have much to show for it.

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    I never thought of this one, but you're quite right - it's a fairly common expression that invariably nets down to exactly OP's Big effort : Small result juxtaposition. Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 6:38

Perhaps not much heard, but All gong and no dinner might be close to the spirit of the Japanese, although it presages not so much a little result as no result at all.


Depending on context, you could describe a "big fuss with tiny result" simply as overkill.


There's always the quote from Haggai 1:

You have sown much, and harvested little.

It readily lends itself to metaphorical usage and change of person, and would usually be recognised as being wry rather than pretentious.


There's also "all sizzle and no steak".


I have heard the phrase "Using a siege gun to kill a gnat" (actually I think it was in a novel).

  • Authors seem to compete to create their own versions of this simile.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 16:11

Are there similar English sayings to express “大山鳴動鼠一匹 - Big fuss, tiny result”?

Dud: a person or thing that proves ineffectual or a failure, or does not meet expectations.

Fizzle: To fail or end weakly, especially after a hopeful beginning. A failure. a fiasco.

You might hear someone say "That turned out to be a dud." Or "That fizzled."

This is a metaphoric reference to the expectation of an explosion where one did not, in fact, occur.


Here's one from A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs, Collected, Explain'd, and Made Intelligible to the English (1721), by James Kelly:

"A great Cry and little Wool quoth the Deel when he clip'd the swine."

The author comments: "Spoken of great Pretences and small Performances." "Deel," I believe, is an old Scottish pronunciation of "Devil."


Somewhat related is a reply I offered on a similar thread. The link to the thread is A situation when you do too many thing but achieve nothing

I am going to repeat my reply here:

You're looking for the expression spinning your wheels.

Example: They're on the grind spinning their wheels.

You can also invent your own expressions such as:

Circling around in circles (suggesting no movement or direction inspite of activity)

They're pushing too hard, a door that needs pulling.

Or they're pulling what needs pushing.

They're pushing a brick wall.

They're busy chewing the stones.

They're busy chewing the rocks.

They're taking one step forward and two steps back.

They're trying to fleece leather out of a sheep.

They're working hard counting the hairs on their own heads.

They're making about turns to get there.

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