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In German, we use the expression: "Den Mantel anziehen, wie er passt," in English roughly, "Putting on the coat how it fits." It refers to a person assuming different positions based on what is convenient for them at the moment. Is there an equivalent expression, phrase or idiom in English ?

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  • So you want an expression describing the situation or the person?
    – NVZ
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 17:34
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    @NVZ The action--the German is a verb phrase. Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 17:37
  • I'm looking for an expression describing the action of assuming different positions.
    – Lyliane
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 17:59
  • What about opportunism?
    – user66974
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 18:09
  • @Josh As a single word, opportunism is perfect. I'm hoping to find an idiom or an expression though.
    – Lyliane
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 18:24

8 Answers 8

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There's an old expression, "turn one's coat", with pretty much the same meaning, but usually employed for a specific change of allegiance rather than habitual change. It survives today mostly in the noun turncoat.

There's also the nautical metaphor "trim one's sails to the [prevailing] wind", meaning to adjust a ship's rigging to take advantage of the wind's current strength and direction. This is not necessarily opprobrious—it is, after all, what every master of a sailing vessel has to do—but beyond actual nautical contexts it's usually a sneer.

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We have an expression in English 'The Vicar of Bray'. You can look up the whole story but the gist of it is when he says :

We have principles, Sir ! (And if you don't like them, we have others.)

So I would suggest the word unprincipled.

Or 'as unprincipled as the Vicar of Bray.'

Unprincipled

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  • The Vicar of Bray changed his stated political and sectarian principles according to who was king at the time (from pre-1685 to post-1715). In doing so his objective was to remain vicar of Bray. Is your quote from the satirical Vicar of Bray, it is not in my version? Anyhow the satire works on two levels, depending on why he wanted to stay Vicar of Bray. One interpretation is he had no real principles at all, he cared only for his revenues, The other is he just wanted to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments to his people, come what may, and changed only in inessentials. .
    – davidlol
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 23:14
  • @davidlol There is a song on Wiki (Old Principles I did revoke etc) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vicar_of_Bray_(song)
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 23:28
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He's a chameleon.

chameleon noun

...

1.2 A person who changes their opinions or behaviour according to the situation.

voters have misgivings about his performance as a political chameleon

[ODO]

The example ODO gives shows how the behaviour may be referred to.

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  • The OP is in search of an expression. See the Q and the comment english.stackexchange.com/questions/413704/… Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 22:56
  • @Clare 'He's a chameleon' qualifies as an expression (on multiple levels: it's obviously a metaphor, and common enough to have the metaphorical meaning defined). ODO requires merely: 'A word or phrase, especially an idiomatic one, used to convey an idea.' Also qualifying as an expression is 'his performance as a [political etc] chameleon' (as I say), and this one means 'his assuming different positions based on what is convenient at the moment [in the {political etc}arena]'. OP also allowed the totally general 'phrase'. Retract? Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 15:20
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Moral Flexibility (or morally flexible)
Not adhering to a certain set of principles, instead morally adapting to the situation at hand.

Unfortunately could only find a source on urban dictionary, but it is a fairly common idiom, probably popularized by the film Thank You For Smoking, a main theme of which is moral flexibility.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=morally%20flexible

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Being an opportunist

Swaying with the wind

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He can tell which way the wind is blowing

You might say this about someone who changes his stance often for political reasons, especially when it comes to appeasing public opinion.

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Ad Hoc

The Latin ad hoc, meaning literally "to this" is a good expression to use in conjunction with other expressions. Its definition is

For the specific purpose, case, or situation at hand and for no other

With a little imagination, you can combine ad hoc with other expressions. Here are a few from my own imagination:

  • In many ways, Fritz was a good ad hoc accommodator.

  • Marta's ad hoc accommodating skills were amazing. Consequently, everyone liked her!

  • Günter was a consummate diplomat with an uncanny ability to invent ad hoc expressions which offended no one and endeared him to everyone.

  • Erika was a chameleon. Her ability to devise ad hoc solutions for appearing to take sides in an issue when in reality she would take anyone's side, made her a people pleaser and peacemaker.

  • Martin only appeared to be an ad hoc compromiser, when in reality he kept private his true opinions and feelings about issues to himself.

  • Dietrich, wanting to fit in wherever he went, employed ad hoc strategies to get accepted by almost everyone.

Doubletongued

Doubletongued is Another apt expression which describes a person who agrees with you when he is talking to you, but then just moments later when talking to a person having an opinion contrary to yours, he agrees with them.

A Janus-Like Mouth

A doubletongued person can also be described as someone who "talks out of both sides of their mouth," which is also apt in describing the phenomenon in your question. Janus, by the way, was the god of gates and doorways, depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions.

A Split Tongue

Years ago, a common--albeit stereotypical--native American expression used in a typical "cowboys and Indians" movie was

White man speaks with forked tongue.

A forked tongue, I presume, is synonymous with a doubletongue, but it is an equally felicitous expression.

Janus-Faced

A Janus-faced person is two-faced, hypocritical, and deceitful. Janus, as noted earlier in my answer was the god of gates and doorways, depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions

And finally,

Hypocrite

A hypocrite behaves like a play- or movie actor who can get under the skin, so to speak, of two entirely different people in the same play or movie. A veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The word hypocrite is from the "Middle English ipocrite, from Old French, from Late Latin hypocrita, from Greek hupokritēs, actor, from hupokrīnesthai, to play a part, pretend; see hypocrisy."

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There is an interesting old expression that fits the described situation rather nicely—although, regrettably, it seems to have fallen out of use. It appears in Thomas Fielding, Select Proverbs of All Nations: Illustrated with Notes and Comments (1824), which reports that it was then a local aphorism in Berkshire:

The Vicar of Bray will be Vicar of Bray still.—Berkshire

Bray is a well-known village in Berkshire; the vivacious vicar of which, living under Henry VIII. Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, was first a papist, then a protestant; then a papist, and then a protestant again. Being taxed for a turncoat; "Not so," said he, "for I always kept my principle; which is to live and die Vicar of Bray!" To this, [Thomas] Fuller [The History of the Worthies of England (1662)] adds a sentence, which has not yet lost its application. "Such men now-a-days," says he, "who though they cannot turn the wind, they turn their mills and set them so, that wheresoever it bloweth, their grain should certainly be grinded."

This expression is evidently quite old (presumably dating to the 1500s when the vicar would have had occasion to turn his religious coat multiple times in response to the reigns of Henry VII, Mary, and Elizabeth). A note in The Antiquary: A Magazine Devoted to the Study of the Past (October 1885) points to a 1705 note in which a writer accuses a subsequent Vicar of Bray of living up to his predecessor's standard by in the first place being "author of two sermons which contradict one another" and in the second being "a very rich man [who] minds nothing but pelf as his neighbours say."

John Timbs, Curiosities of History: With New Lights (1862) cites a communication dated June 14, 1735, from "Mr. Rawlins, in a letter to Mr. Brome" reporting that the proverbial Vicar of Bray was "Simon Alleyn or Allen, who was Vicar of Bray about 1540, and died 1588, so was Vicar of Bray near fifty years"—so evidently the vicar lived true to his principles (or principle) to the end.

Having as one's guiding light the rule to zealously and unceasingly pursue one's perceived self-interest and to adapt in all other things in order to serve that end seems to be as popular as ever today. It certainly isn't hard to find dyed-in-the-wool Vicars of Bray who are quite adept at changing the hue of their fleece to suit the immediate occasion.

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