I'm trying to think of a word or phrase that refers to something that appears dangerous or intimidating but is actually insignificant. "Ostentatious" seems to go in the right direction, (in the sense that it means "showy") but it doesn't have the connotations of "menacing". Is there such a word?

EDIT: Perhaps I should clarify; I was thinking more of occurrences that caused panic but in reality had little effect (eg. the Three Mile Island accident -- it was widely reported to be a horrific disaster, but it didn't release enough radioactive material to be linked to any cases of cancer.) In this question, I'm referring to the occurrence having earned a false reputation for being dangerous or fearsome.

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    "Paper tiger" is one such idiom. A term that often has a similar meaning is chimera. – Sven Yargs Jul 26 '13 at 23:47
  • I want to say "his bark is bigger than his bite", but it doesn't work so well for things . . . – ruakh Jul 26 '13 at 23:59
  • I think "all bark and no bite" works fine for objects. A big, nasty lookin' sword that is very dull might be described that way. Or the SEC. – Amory Jul 27 '13 at 1:29
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    Your Three Mile Island example to me suggests something slightly different—something I’d perhaps rather call a storm/tempest in a teacup or even much ado about nothing. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 27 '13 at 12:02
  • Depending upon your audience you might consider the allegory of the "pale green pants." – Jack Ryan Jul 28 '13 at 16:34

One idiom that comes to mind is "not as black as it is painted":

if people or situations are not as black as they are painted, they are not as bad as people say they are


Shakespeare's Macbeth characterizes life

it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

You also might consider scarecrow

a person or thing that appears frightening but is not actually harmful


“A sheep in wolf's clothing” is occasionally heard. Also consider humbug, in its various senses “something designed to deceive and mislead; a willfully false, deceptive, or insincere person; an attitude or spirit of pretense and deception” if the thing is deceptively fierce on purpose.

In mythology, the Chimera actually is a dangerous monster, but in modern usage noun chimera (as mentioned in a comment) and adjective chimeric refer to a thing or notion that appears dangerous but in fact is “a vain, foolish, or incongruous fancy, or creature of the imagination”. Also, besides paper tiger consider saber rattler, someone who rattles their saber in its sheath to appear dangerous, but is unwilling to actually draw the blade.

  • I would suggest not considering saber rattler, since AFAICT it usually doesn't imply "unwilling to actually draw the blade". – ruakh Jul 27 '13 at 2:31

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