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I'm looking for a word/idiom/phrase that describes a situation where the front side has been held up for a show/event to function but the back stage that is holding it is a complete chaos/mess and is on the brink of falling apart.

Specifically, what is a phrase that describes something that looks grand from the outside but in actuality, it is very bad on the inside? For instance, imagine a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. But when I turn the tree, the back side of the tree is all burnt up. It is only putting up a good show on the outside.

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16 Answers 16

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This is arguably literally putting on a front.

From Phrases.org {Smokey Stover} (selected):

Putting on a front [Also] putting up a front:

Merriam-Webster has this meaning for "front":

1...b: external and often feigned appearance especially in the face of danger or adversity

... putting up a front as a means of concealing something, [or putting on a front]

[compare:]

  • On old buildings across America, you have false fronts, façades of a more grandiose appearance than what lies behind the front.

And an obviously related (though metonymic, and negative) example:

  • The stakes are being raised when it comes to front-of-house design. Buckley Gray Yeoman’s directors explain the art of creating a warm reception:

Office buildings are not renowned for putting on a front. However slick they may appear on the inside, shabby steps, a tatty facade, a worn-away plaque and a plastic buzzer make a commonplace greeting from the street, setting them apart from alluring retail fronts, restaurants, galleries and hotels.

[Rachel Calton; OnOfficeMagazine; 2010]

The expression is more usually used less literally to mean disguising one's negative emotions.

The word facade also has both literal and figurative meanings that match the stated situation:

façade [noun]:

  • the front of a building
  • a false appearance that makes someone or something seem more pleasant or better than they really are ...

[Cambridge Dictionary]

  • His installation reveals this dilapidated interior where the smart new facade falls away from the top floor.

[DeZeen]

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    Isn't this generally used about people? Sue puts up a tough front, or in vernacular, she's "fronting". Saying "the tree is putting on a front" sounds odd, since it has no agency. Mar 31 at 17:55
  • (a) Hence the 'The expression is more usually used less literally to mean disguising one's negative emotions.' (b) Are you saying that 'a situation where the front side has been held up for a show/event to function but the back stage that is holding it is a complete chaos/mess and is on the brink of falling apart' doesn't involve human agency (in the broader, beyond-thematic-role-in-sentence-structure sense)? Of course it only works if one is anthropomorphising with your example. Apr 1 at 14:24
  • Yes, the last thing. "putting on a front" sounds funny without direct agency. An American might say "Sue's putting up a front with that tree" or anthropomorphise it like "you can't trust that tree -- I think it's putting on a front". But to be short and direct "that tree is a facade" sounds better. Apr 1 at 14:40
  • I've added an example I've found of a metonymic usage, office buildings [{sadly} not usually] putting on a front. Apr 1 at 15:05
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much in the news lately: "potemkin village"

(and by bogus generalization: potemkin markets, potemkin superpower, etc.)

Merriam-Webster says "an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition"

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    Literal examples of Potemkin villages are neighborhoods where the local government paints/lights up abandoned houses and storefronts to look occupied, in order to hide blight or depopulation from visitors. In Cleveland, for example. And Detroit before the 2005 Super Bowl, and Enniskillen, Northern Ireland before the 2013 G8 summit.
    – Dan
    Mar 30 at 19:44
  • I don't think Potemkin villages refer to fake news et al. It's always a real place. And anyway, they aren't bad, they are just lies about a society.
    – Lambie
    Mar 30 at 20:52
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    @Lambie; And anyway, they aren't bad, they are just lies about a society. Post that on politics.se, sit back and watch the show. Prepare lots of popcorn - you may be there for a while.
    – Spratty
    Mar 31 at 8:26
  • North Korea
    – Mentalist
    Apr 5 at 2:23
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I can’t resist adding a Scottish idiom to the set of answers;

“Fur coat, nae drawers”

or

“Fur coat, nae knickers”

(Scots “Nae” = no)

Something that is all show, with no substance.

An analogy with a woman who dresses to impress with a fur coat but has no underwear, whether for lack of money or promiscuous intent I leave to the imagination of the reader.

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  • Anton, you got there just before I posted the Liverpool version of that! Mar 30 at 17:23
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    All show is also a good answer.
    – DjinTonic
    Mar 30 at 18:42
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    I quite literally came to this question to post "all fur coat and no knickers" - fair play to you for getting there first. I didn't know the expression had currency in Scotland, I must admit; it's not one I ever heard from my Scottish grandmother, but then she was the daughter of a Methodist minister so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised :-)
    – Spratty
    Mar 31 at 8:24
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    @Anton Sorry to disappoint: mine was just the same crack in a Scouse accent: /ɔːl fɛː kʰɛʋtʰ ən nɛʋ dɹɔːz/ Mar 31 at 8:24
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    In Texas, it would be "All hat, no cattle." Mar 31 at 12:09
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Merriam-Webster whited sepulcher

: a person inwardly corrupt or wicked but outwardly or professedly virtuous or holy : hypocrite

(referred by M-W's etymology) Bible, Matthew 23:27

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.

(emphasis added)

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    Would this work for OP's examples? Mar 30 at 16:46
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    Though colourful, that's an old expression; none of the dictionaries I checked mark it as archaic, but one marked it as ‘literary’, and I don't expect everyone would understand it today (without some context). (Also, it's mostly spelled ‘sepulchre’ outside the US.)
    – gidds
    Mar 31 at 13:52
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a house of cards

Merriam-Webster definition:

a structure, situation, or institution that is insubstantial, shaky, or in constant danger of collapse


facade

\ fə-ˈsäd \

Merriam-Webster definition:

a false, superficial, or artificial appearance or effect

Its original meaning is the face of a building, but you will probably observe it used more often in the above sense.


Others that come to mind include:

a rotten apple / rotten fruit


You might also consider adapting the logic of "house of cards" to your own juxtaposition of something grand built in a plain or unsuitable medium. Example:

a cardboard palace


Another approach would be to describe something as lacking substance:

an empty shell

an empty husk

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A couple of phrases that describe the attempt of making something bad appear good on surface include "putting lipstick on a pig" and "polishing a turd". These would usually apply best when the attempt has failed, otherwise no one would be aware of the poor quality below the surface. They typically describe a futile attempt to make something awful appear good from the outside - even in their most attractive possible forms with lipstick or a polish, you're still looking at a pig or a turd. The Christmas tree example as given doesn't fit exactly since it really does look beautiful from one side - a more fitting case of "lipstick on a pig" would be a completely dead tree with falling needles that's decorated with beautiful ornaments.

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The word that comes to mind is pinchbeck:

appearing valuable, but actually cheap or tawdry. — Lexico

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  • Hi, welcome to the site. You should make sure your answers are fleshed out as much as possible, preferably with a reference.
    – Laurel
    Mar 30 at 23:56
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Gilded Turd

a gold plated piece of feces.

Probably not something you will find in a dictionary or other 'official' source but a casual search returned multiple hits.

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Gilded is probably the most succinct (short) version of what you're looking for.

One example is the Gilded Age of American History, which directly led to the Roaring (19)20s, where corruption was rampant but everybody was having unsustainable fun before the resultant market crash that made everybody impoverished and starve.

Another example is gilded metal (where the Gilded in Gilded Age comes from), where a fragile (in this context, fragile meaning easily corroded by oxygen) metal gets coated with something stronger (in this context, stronger meaning hard to corrode).

  • E.g. gilding steel with gold, which is a lot cheaper than solid gold but still looks like it's solid gold from the outside.

Colloquially speaking, Poser is a person or company/corporation that says they will commit one very good action but doesn't actually commit that very good action (similar to the definition of hypocrite, but specifically with reference to good/kind/nice actions instead of the implied ambiguous morality of hypocrite)

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Specifically, what is a phrase that describes something that looks grand from the outside but in actuality, it is very bad on the inside?

looks can be deceiving/deceptive (idiom)

Used to say that something can be very different from how it seems or appears to be

The restaurant doesn't look very appealing, but looks can be deceiving/deceptive. m-w

As the example shows, this idiom can be used both ways. (I'm not sure about giving that restaurant a try, though.)


An appropriate saying would be don't judge a book by its cover.

The English idiom "don't judge a book by its cover" is a metaphorical phrase that means one should not judge the worth or value of something by its outward appearance alone. Wikipedia

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Superficial presenting only an appearance without substance or significance

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Aw fur coat an nae knickers

(All fur coat and no knickers)

“Aw fur coat an nae knickers” is a popular jibe levelled by Glaswegians in the west at those in Edinburgh in the east. The insinuation is that while Edinburgh residents appear cultured, dignified and steeped in class, this is purely superficial and that underneath the facade they are no classier than their local rivals…Also implied in the insult is a reference to the dress worn by the high-class prostitutes that once plied their trade on the Capital’s Danube Street under the employment of famous “Madam” Dora Noyce.

The Scotsman, 29th January 2014

@Anton has provided an abbreviated version of this very British (primarily Scottish) saying, with “drawers” replacing “knickers”, although the latter was subsequently added as an alternative. However there is ample evidence that the delightfully alliterative “knickers” version (with or without the “aw” and “an”) is the most common — I would say authentic — version, and “drawers” is the very rare alternative. I therefore feel obliged to post a separate answer, with supporting evidence. (I’m a scientist — I would, wouldn’t I.)

First, The Scotsman is a Scottish national newspaper based in Edinburgh, so the quotation and explanation can be regarded as having some authority.

Second, an internet search for “fur coat, no drawers” brings up a top hit in Word Histories with “drawers” only as an alternative, but a page of other hits with “no knickers” — certainly no drawers. (Try it yourself.)

Third, Google Books ngram comparisons of “and nae knickers/drawers”, “fur coat and nae knickers/drawers”, “fur coat and no knickers/drawers” fail to find any examples with “drawers”. (I’ve included one of them below). “And no drawers” scores about a tenth of “And no knickers”, but all the examples of the former occur in other contexts, as far as I could see.

Google ngram search drawers v. knickers

It is of some interest that books retrieved by the ngram search that include this expression date from no earlier than 1975, although the Word Histories article has a quotation from 1966. By this time the pre-war term “drawers” had completely gone out of use in Britain — my wife laughed when she heard the suggestion. (Oh, and we have lived in Glasgow for half a century.)

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  • Very nice and beautifully thorough. The point about the age-related choice of drawers or knickers is well-made. I first encountered “drawers” from older Scots born before WWII. Younger acquaintance favours “knickers”.
    – Anton
    Apr 6 at 6:56
  • @Anton — I admit one has to be careful in relation to terms still used in Scotland that are outmoded in England. I think I met the term "press" in Alice in Wonderland, assumed it was Victorian, and then found we had one in the tenement apartment we bought when we moved to Glasgow. Several others that I can't recall off the top of my head. And knickers were what little girls wore in my youth, but the term was also used — clearly in this case — in other contexts. Haven't time to research it at the moment.
    – David
    Apr 6 at 9:56
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In corporations, there is the concept of watermelon diagrams (or data).

Data that is green (OK) on the outside (usually for showing to management), but when you cut in it is bright red.

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All that glitters is not gold could apply.

not everything that looks precious or true turns out to be so.

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"A house of cards" - I came here to say that. Mentalist beat me to it :-) .

"A hollow sham" / "A hollow shell"

"A fake front"

"A Potemkin xxx" - originally a Potemkin village.

  • Spike0dxx suggests that this means "an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition", but I suggest that it is in fact even closer to your requirement than that. Your example of a "hollow shell" that looks superb but has no substance is a good explanation of the term.

"Putting on a show"

"Gilding the Lily" <- comments suggest this is questionable.

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    "Gilding the lily" usually means applying excessive, unnecessary decoration to something that is already beautiful. It doesn't really apply here. Apr 3 at 16:03
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You could quote Hamlet and say... Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

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