What's a noun (or noun phrase) for something scary but actually harmless?

I've thought of "bugbear" but it's not very accurate.

An adjective somewhat the opposite of insidious (as in "deadly while appearing to be harmless") would be welcome too.


3 Answers 3


Not a single word, but the term paper tiger is used this way, though it also has political connotations due to its origin in Maoist era anti-US propaganda and its continued usage in political contexts.

The meaning isn't an exact match either, since it means "threatening but harmless", rather than "scary" in the horror-movie sense.

From Merriam-Webster:

: one that is outwardly powerful or dangerous but inwardly weak or ineffectual
// The new laws are just paper tigers without any method of enforcement.

  • Actually, this fits my use perfectly! Thanks! May 1, 2019 at 9:45
  • I took the liberty of adding a link to and quotation of a definition of the term. (Generally, when providing an answer like this, it's a good idea to cite something authoritative.) Feel free to make any changes to what I've done. May 1, 2019 at 11:48

Very close to "bugbear" is bugaboo:

1: an imaginary object of fear

// politicians complaining about that old bugaboo, high oil prices
// doing one's tax returns are a real bugaboo for some people
definition from m-w.com

from Oxford Dictionaries:

An object of fear or alarm; a bogey.
// ‘one of the favourite bugaboos, the ticking biological clock’
definition from oxforddictionaries.com

Note that despite the definition as "imaginary", the quoted usages are about real items that cause undue fear.

  • That comes close, but it has other meanings that make it unsuitable as they suggest that the object is a real thing that can cause real harm, e.g. "A recurring or persistent problem" or "a source of concern" from other dictionaries. May 1, 2019 at 9:39

Are you thinking perhaps of phobias? Phobias are only “scary” to those suffering with the actual phobia, or irrational fear— but it’s often the case that most people would not find said phobia to be alarming or disconcerting (if they aren’t suffering also with the phobia, that is)

  • 1
    No, not phobia. But thanks for trying. And welcome! May 1, 2019 at 9:21

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