I found the phrase ‘Long on looks, short on spirit’ in the Washington Post article written by Ann Hornaday (http://www.washingtonpost.com/gog/movies/jane-eyre,1164774/critic-review.html#reviewNum1).

What does ‘Long on looks, short on spirit’ mean? To me it sounds like saying ‘Have a big picture, but be realistic’, but I don’t know. Is this a well-worn English cliché or Charlotte Bronte’s coinage? In what occasion can I use this phrase?

  • I am getting a 404 on the link.
    – MrHen
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 22:41

4 Answers 4


I wouldn't say that this exact phrase is a well-worn cliche, but the format is well known. I've also heard 'Long on style, short on substance', as well as other variations.

The meaning of each of these types of statements is to compare traits of a larger subject, especially when one trait is vastly overrepresented compared to the other, "Long on [trait A], short on [trait B]." (This is also true if one trait is vastly under-represented.)

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    So it means 'great on his looks (appearance), but low (inactive) in his spirit'? Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 23:29
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    I'd add that the two traits are ones that you would hope would be balanced. I think usually this is used in a more negative sense, and the positive counterpart would be the idiom, "What he lacks in X he makes up for in Y".
    – tenfour
    Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 0:23

My guess is that the character in question is physically attractive, but isn't passionate enough (emotional enough, emotive enough) for the role. Which is why the reviewer talks about missing the "the spark of rebellion" in the heroine.

Come to think of it, the phrase could also refer to the work (or a work) as a whole. Handsomely staged, but without a subversive spirit. Beautiful sets and costumes, but lacking heart. Stunning but superficial. Or something similar to similar effect.

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    +1 for the stab in the dark, and then turning on the light. Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 3:24

The article explains exactly what the title means:

And it’s just that spark that’s fatally missing from Mia Wasikowska’s elegant but inert portrayal in “Jane Eyre,” which while qualifying as the most gorgeously appointed and finely detailed version of the novel so far, still lacks the element of essential fire to make it come fully, even subversively, to life.

The "long on [x], short on [y]" construction is a fairly common trope. It means basically "has plenty of [x], but not enough [y]". Thus, "elegant but inert" - the reviewer thought the movie was gorgeous to look at, but she thought the heroine didn't show enough of the emotions she would have liked to see.

  • @Callithumpian -- that's no challege! (Plus, I was content with the 404 error on the link, though +1 to Martha for repairing it.)
    – jbelacqua
    Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 3:11
  • I want to try to use this pharase. Can I say "(a politician is) long in saying, short in doing (or delivering promise)?" Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 3:38
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    @yoichi 'Long on promises, short on action,' or 'short on delivery' perhaps.
    – jbelacqua
    Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 5:27
  • @jgbelacqua. Thanks, I'd like to use it to someone whenever suitable. Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 8:28

I believe that several of the answers are close but not quite right.

The phrase is referring to two attributes, both of which are necessary for something to succeed. So someone who is "long on intelligence, but short on initiative" is someone who is quite smart but doesn't follow through on their ideas, thus failing to accomplish them.

So the primary implication is that the overall effort was insufficient and failed because of the shortcoming, and the secondary implication is that those in charge over-emphasized the strength in a failed attempt to overcome the weakness.

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