I'm looking for an idiom or expression to describe a well-known person/ organization/ politician/ government whose achievements in a given situation are smaller than what they had claimed or promised to be.

We Iranians have a proverb that literally means

The (roaring) mountain just gave birth to a mouse!

Its etymology is like this:

Once a volcanic mountain started roaring, hissing, and bursting bubbles. The people were waiting to see what would happen after all those huge roarings and loud booms. Finally, the volcano activity stopped and the people saw just a tiny mouse came out of there! (rather than a monster that was expected to come). So they said mockingly:

"Heh! After all those huge roarings, the (big) mountain just gave birth to a (tiny) mouse!"


  • The (roaring) mountain -symbol for an apparently big(=important) and strong person-here is figured like a woman who is screaming and shouting while is delivering her baby.

  • We use this proverb for mocking an important person/organization/ government, etc ironically when they have used broad advertisements or have spent much money or resources over doing something noticeable, but the result/ achievement is less noticeable than it was claimed or promised to be.

Is there any equivalent for this Persian proverb?

I just found "much ado about nothing"; would it convey the same connotation?

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    We had a rather embarrassing incident during one of the critical deliveries. Even though we had tested the functionality in every possible environment, an issue was identified at the 11th hour that was applicable only to the Production environment. So we, the developers, and our ex-manager, who had talked highly about the delivery, were pulled up for a conference meeting by the clients. Our onsite Dev Manager used these exact words before hanging up - "Folks, looks likes it's all show and no go". You can't imagine how red-faced my then manager was!
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 4:51
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    Hey, we have that proverb in Portuguese! Pretty cool. The formulation is exactly like that, so probably doesn't help with the english version. Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 15:01
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    'Paper tiger', 'sword rattling' are similar in the same space but not identical to yours.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 15:59
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    The mountain and the squirrel had a quarrel / and the former called the latter "little prig". / Bun replied / "You are doubtless very big" / "but all sorts of things and weather" / "must be taken in together" / "to make a year" / "and a sphere." / "And I think it no disgrace" / "to occupy my place." / "If I cannot carry forests on my back" / "neither can you" / "crack a nut." -- Emerson
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 19:43
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    Russian analogue: замах на рубль, удар на копейку - Aim for a dollar - strike for a penny.
    – Vi0
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 0:40

17 Answers 17


This is a famous proverb in virtually all languages. Best known perhaps from the Roman poet Horace (1st century AD): "Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus" (The mountains will be in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth). A common English version is "A mountain gave birth to a mouse".

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    @Soudabeh- The saying about a mouse coming from a roaring mountain is not common in English, but not unheard of either.
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 17:36
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    In French, this proverb was popularized by Jean de la Fontaine in the fable "La montagne qui accouche [d'une souris]" (the mountain that gives birth to a mouse), the usual translations being "the mountain roared/laboured and brought forth a mouse".
    – Graffito
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 22:31
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    This doesn't answer the question. Please edit this to give an English idiom. Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 11:14
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    I'm a native English speaker and have never heard of this idiom.
    – Luke
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 16:55
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    I'm a native American speaker and have never heard of this idiom. Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 4:10

full of hot air refers to someone who talks a lot and makes big claims, but with no action behind their words.

Similarly there's all talk no action.

The phrases essentially mean the same thing, the first more emphasises the boastfulness of the subject, the second more emphasises the lack of action.

These terms can be used to refer to anyone - not just people in positions of authority or expected influence.

That politician is full of hot air, he makes all these claims about how he's going to make the world a better place, but really he's all talk and no action.

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    There's also All smoke no fire
    – Yay
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 19:00
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    @Yay That's a good answer - you should post it.
    – dwjohnston
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 19:01
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    And "all sizzle and no steak". Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 18:33
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    The Irishism for this expression is to say someone is "all wind and piss" Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 20:12
  • @BinaryWorrier I've always heard it the other way around. Perhaps that's the British version.
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 19:46

"All hat, no cattle" is used in the American West to describe someone who acts like he's a big deal cowboy/cattleman, but is in fact only dressing the part.


The term damp squib comes to mind.

A situation or event which is much less impressive than expected: my moment of power was a damp squib


So, in your intended context, you could describe either the under-performing politician or the unimpressive event as a damp squib:

He said he was going to start a revolution but it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib

The Free Dictionary gives a nice note about the origin of this term:

A squib is a type of firework (a small container filled with chemicals which explodes to produce bright lights and loud noises) and if it becomes wet, it will not explode.

The incendiary root dovetails nicely with your idiom's volcano metaphor.


All talk and no trousersTFD

Full of boastful, arrogant, or shallow talk that never materializes into results. A variant of "all mouth and trousers," meaning the same thing. Primarily heard in UK.

"The team's manager keeps promising title after title, but he's seeming like all talk and no trousers at this point."

There are different versions of this idiom — "All something and no some other thing"

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    I think it's normally all mouth and no trousers
    – Charon
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 18:35
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    The Texas version is "All hat and no cattle".
    – Ex Umbris
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 20:35
  • @Charon Turns out that "all mouth and trousers" is in fact completely normal (and depending on who you ask, is the original, correct version) - see articles like theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2010/aug/26/… Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 19:01

A woman in the southern US might say

I shaved my legs for this?

Meaning she was excited and took great care getting prepared for a date, but ended up being underwhelmed when the date didn't live up to her expectations.

Another one from the southern US would be

You expected lightning over the Mississippi, but you got thunder over the creek.

  • How cool! In Central Texas I remember hearing "You expected a storm over the Guadalupe, but you got drizzle over the Cibolo." Almost exactly the same thing; interesting how it changed to fit the vernacular.
    – Mikey
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 17:57
  • Sometimes you'll hear it with the name of a specific local creek as well.
    – newanalog
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 21:13

"...it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5.

Poetic in its own way, though the connotation is arguably different.

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    For what little it's worth, I think it's spot on and well-known enough to use just the "sound and fury" part.
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 17:57

fizzle out

Fail, end weakly, especially after a hopeful beginning. For example, The enthusiasm for reform has fizzled out in this state. The word fizzle dates from the early 1500s and meant "to break wind without making noise." Later it was applied to hissing noises, such as those made by wet fireworks, and then to any endeavor that ends in disappointment. [Colloquial; mid-1800s] The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms

all talk and no cider

Full of strong words, promises, or intentions, but failing either to act on those words or to achieve results. Farlex Dictionary of Idioms

all vine and no taters

An Americanism of the 19th century used to describe something or someone very showy but of no substance. God Bless America

all show and no go

Sl. equipped with good looks but lacking action or energy. (Used to describe someone or something that looks good but does not perform as promised.) McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

nothing to write home about

write home about: to express excitement about, as if something is so good, it is worth the effort of writing a letter about it. Typically used in the phrase "nothing to write home about," showing disinterest or disappointment Farlex Dictionary of Idioms

fuss and feathers

Needless commotion and display, as in There was so much fuss and feathers over the award ceremony that I decided not to attend. This expression probably survives because of its appealing alliteration. [Mid-1800s] The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary

make a big thing (out) of something

To behave as if something is very important He always makes a big thing out of helping me cook. I want some sort of party, but I don't want to make a big thing of it. Cambridge Idioms Dictionary

  • Nice to see that 'nothing to write home about' also known in English! I always thought it was a typical Dutch expression.
    – Vincent
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 12:39

A single word that might describe this is underwhelming.

To fail to excite, stimulate, or impress: "He is just as entitled to be underwhelmed by the prospect of reigning over a fourth-class nation as the rest of us are by the prospect of living in it" (Peter Jay).

To use it in your example, you might simply exclaim,

"That was underwhelming."

  • I've never like the coinage underwhelmed since it is based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of over in overwhelmed where it means "upside down" as in "Flip the pancake over".
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 13:45

Here is an amusing proverb from James Howell, Lexicon Tetraglotton (1659):

A great cry and little wooll, quoth the Devil when he sheard the hogg.

The same proverb (slightly altered) also appears in James Kelly, A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs (1721), with an explanation of contextual usage afterward:

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

Spoken of great Pretences and small Performances.


Andrew Batson, a keen observer of the SOE scene at Gavekal Dragonomics, a consulting firm, sums up [China’s plan to reform its troubled state firms] thus: “an ungainly mishmash of bureaucratic compromises that sets no clear goals and is riven by internal contradictions.” China’s best chance to rein in the excesses of state capitalism is yielding a whimper, not a bang.

(quote with example usage taken from an article in ‘The Economist’ titled ‘China’s state-owned enterprises: A whimper, not a bang’)

The expression “Not with a bang, but a whimper” normally is used with a form of the verb “end [with]” (just as T. S. Eliot used it in the final stanza of "The Hollow Men" [link to Wikipedia]) to describe a less-than-spectacular end of something (the end of the world, in Mr. Eliot’s poem).

However, the above title of and quote from the article from “The Economist” are examples where the original order of the quote has not only been flipped (“whimper” before “bang”), but also where the verb used with it (i.e., “yield”) is less final than “end,” which I think makes it fit well in your context (you could also use it with the verbs “produce,” “result [in],” or even [to stick with the notion of birth in your original idiom] “deliver”:

He and his labor yielded/produced/resulted in/delivered a whimper, not a bang.


If you think the lack of results is at least in part due to lack of competence, you could use the saying that: Empty vessels make the most sound.


A non-event is quite fitting.

Wikpedia: non-event

"A non-event is an anticipated or highly publicized event that either does not occur or turns out to be anticlimactic, boring, or a hoax. Non-events tends to be disappointing because they are often hyped prior to their occurrence"


Bark is worse than his bite, kind of.

  • Or maybe “all bark, no bite.”
    – Greg Bacon
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 13:03
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    Please explain your answer in full. Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 15:59

Paper Tiger

Paper tiger is a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhilaohu. The term refers to something that seems threatening but is ineffectual and unable to withstand challenge. The expression became well known in the West as a slogan used by Mao Zedong's Chinese communist state against its opponents, particularly the U.S. government. - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_tiger

I just found "much ado about nothing"; would it convey the same connotation?

Sometimes. Your Persian example indicates time. First there is a lot of noise, then nothing significant happens.

BIG, small.

But the English example can also work the other way around. BIG, small. small, BIG.

Or even more complex. Say someone buys a car, finds out a headlight is broken, goes back and shouts at the salesman, who then swaps a bulb. First there is a small problem, then there is a lot of noise, and last there is a small fix.

small, BIG, small.


There is an idiom "His reputation precedes him," meaning that a person is so famous that the speaker need not recount the person's virtues or achievements. That idiom can be twisted ironically to "His reputation exceeds him," which I think captures the spirit of your question. I Googled the phrase and found an article about a sculptor whom the author - an art critic - believed was over-rated.

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