There was the following sentence in the New York Times (August 16) article under the title, “Where's the justice at justice?”:

Attorney General Eric Holder said in May that “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail,” trying to show some leg and signal that his intention is benign, merely to put pressure on (former C.I.A. agent) Jeffrey Sterling so that he will plead guilty before his trial.

OED carries the word, “leg show,” but not “show leg(s)." CED carries neither “leg show” nor “show leg.”

However, a definition at WordReference.com says

The phrase "show some leg" means to reveal some skin, usually as an inducement to get someone to do something, or to make yourself more attractive.

and one at www.englishforums.com says

Show some leg--literally, to expose your legs to view. Thus, to tempt sexually or to flirt or to seek attention. ...

GoogleNgram shows “show leg” in an almost insignificant currency level (0.0000000590% in 2007).

I know "show a leg" means to get up, but what does “show some (a little) leg” mean ? Does it mean to tempt a desired reaction from the other, or to reveal one’s real intention? Is it a common phrase?

  • Have you researched it as an idiom? It should be readily found that way. Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 4:09
  • 3
    Yoichi !!!!! it's yet another case: it's simply poor writing. The writer is, basically, an idiot and has used a common phrase in a very confusing, indeed simply incorrect, way. It's that simple.
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 7:51
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    Yes, every English speaker knows the phrase "show a little leg" - it's generally simply used literally or near-literally, to refer to, a female flirting. Yes, it absolutely means "tempt a desired reaction from the other", not your other suggestion.
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 7:54
  • Sadly the link tells me the page no longer exists, the excerpt is difficult to interpret without knowing what preceded it. And by the way, are the external inverted commas yours or the journalist reporting?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 8:53
  • @Mari-LouA. It’s strange that the link says the page no longer exists. It’s (my favorite)Maureen Dowds’ article in today’s NYT. Here’s link: nytimes.com/2014/08/17/opinion/sunday/… Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 10:40

1 Answer 1


What does “show some (a little) leg” mean in common understanding?

The information you quote from www.wordreference and www.englishforums. com is correct in describing common usage of show some leg or show a little leg. Claudette Colbert - leg

The picture above, from It Happened One Night (1934), illustrates a classic example of showing a little leg as a hitchhiking device. Clark Gable brags about his skill at thumbing a ride; lots of cars go by without slowing down at all. Then Claudette Colbert shows some leg and the driver of a passing car brakes as fast as he can and gives Gable and Colbert a lift.

The idiom or imagery in Dowd's sentence probably is easily understood by a large fraction of the US public, and perhaps by other English speakers as well. However, Dowd's sentence has problems: It says Holder is trying to appear benign to put pressure on Sterling, which seems to be a self-contradictory statement. That apparent self-contradiction makes the sentence hard to understand, at least during the first dozen times one reads it.

Does [show some (a little) leg] mean to tempt a desired reaction from the other, or to reveal one’s real intention? Is it a common phrase?

It ordinarily is understood as temptation, rather than as a way of revealing one’s real intention, although when Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate shows some leg, it both reveals her intention and acts as a temptation.

Ngrams for show some leg,show a little leg suggests both phrases have greatly increased in popularity since the 1980s, so proper understanding of the phrases probably is widespread.

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    The writer was trying to say the scumbag politician in question was "tempting" the other party. But it's just very poor, confused, writing. BTW any answer featuring Claudette Colbert gets an upvote :O
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 17, 2014 at 7:52
  • @jwpat7.Seeing is believing! Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 0:42
  • The phrase is easy to understand when used literally, and when used metaphorically in a context that is close to those in which it could be used literally, i.e when discussing eroticism, seduction and suchlike. It is, however, confusing and distracting when used metaphorically in a context that is far removed from such matters, such as an analysis of political and legal affairs. The use of the phrase in the article that prompted the question would be stylistically awkward, even apart from the contradiction pointed out in this answer.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 16:20

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