What are common phrases that describe something that appears good but is actually bad?

Edit: Because people say bad is vague I will try to sum up the phrase meaning a little better.

  • something that looks like it will be helpful or advantageous but after use it is hindering

  • a tool that seems useful but is not the correct tool for the job

  • something that seems like a good idea but after execution turns out to be problematic

  • For some reason I cannot post an answer. It seems that word fallacy could be suitable. – Eugeniu Torica Jun 18 '12 at 17:07
  • 4
    I can't help but think that the fact that this question has 26 answers is indicative that it is kind of problematic. – LessPop_MoreFizz Jun 19 '12 at 2:08
  • @LessPop_MoreFizz: I don't think it is problematic. the thing is, the person is looking for metaphors and there must be at least dozens of it. Usually one person doesn't know all of them, so each person gives as answer one of their own. It is impossible to get a single right answer to this (although it is possible to get many wrong answers) – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 16:24
  • 1
    @LessPop_MoreFizz: language problems are not like 1+1=2! – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 16:48
  • 1
    @LessPop_MoreFizz: maybe you could share your opinion on this meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/2731/… – Tames Jun 19 '12 at 18:16

26 Answers 26


A poisoned chalice is something which seems good when received but actually does great harm.

  • 2
    How about a mirage? – Frank Jun 18 '12 at 20:50

If you want a proverb, it could be "Not all that glitters is gold", although what is not good is not necessarily bad. Perhaps a good expression could be "a wolf in sheep's skin", as this is exactly a bad thing disguised as good.

  • 1
    Can you use "wolf in a sheep's skin" for non-persons? – Jonas Jun 18 '12 at 12:09
  • 6
    I'm not sure. Maybe "Trojan horse" could be more appropriate in this case. A related expression is "beware greeks bearing gifts". – Tames Jun 18 '12 at 12:44
  • 3
    @Jonas - certainly you can. The expression I've heard is "a wolf in sheep's clothing." – JAM Jun 18 '12 at 13:41
  • 4
    @Tames: I've sometimes used a variant of that, particularly when dealing with IT salespeople: Beware of geeks bearing gifts. – J.R. Jun 18 '12 at 14:13
  • 2
    a pig in a poke ? – jao Jun 18 '12 at 19:26

The term that pops into my mind is "Fool's gold", after the mineral Pyrite, which looks like gold, so deceives those on first inspection.


The adjective specious also has the meaning you requested.

Misleading in appearance, especially misleadingly attractive

I know you asked for a phrase though.

  • Yeah, I think specious is probably the right answer. – Anup Jun 20 '12 at 8:45

A poisoned apple or poisonous apple is a symbol of something that looks good on the outside but is actually harmful. It, of course, is from the fairy tale of Snow White.

  • For your second example "the wrong tool for the job" is a fairly common phrase. It means that what you're trying to use is, in fact, a useful tool, but it's not the right one to use on this particular job. (The tool doesn't have to be literally a mechanical or hand tool.) – JLG Jun 18 '12 at 13:14

Devil in disguise satisfies the 1st and 3rd bullet points. There also is wolf in sheep's clothing. They both mean the same thing.

  • 1
    In many cases, the relatedly devlish phrase, "the devil is in the details," could be appropriate. For the second bullet point: "That screwdriver appeared to be about the right size for what I needed. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details and that metric screwdriver didn't fit my half inch screws." – wrosecrans Jun 19 '12 at 2:56

I've heard "hollow bunny" used, in reference to chocolate easter bunnies.

The term is sometimes used to describe something disappointing – something that doesn't live up to expectations.

(Maybe you were wanting something much worse than being merely disappointing, but bad is a rather vague word, so it's hard to know for sure. If that's the case, though, I'm sorry about this hollow bunny of an answer.)

  • I hate those damned things, along with cotton candy. Such a tease, they are! – shinyspoongod Jun 20 '12 at 0:47

Pig in a Poke or Cat in a sack

The idioms pig in a poke and sell a pup (or buy a pup) refer to a confidence trick originating in the Late Middle Ages, when meat was scarce, but cats and dogs (puppies) were not


The design of some items can be described as having "form over function". That is, the form of the item is aesthetically pleasing but doesn't actually do its job very well.

  • 2
    your comment reminded me of the expression "white elephant" – Tames Jun 18 '12 at 13:45
  • I also use "for show, not for go" in this situation. – John Lyon Jun 19 '12 at 0:47

How about a Trojan Horse? In computer science it refers to software that seems useful but in fact does harm. The original Trojan Horse also appeared to be a delightful gift for the city of Troy, but held secret Greek soldiers that snuck out and destroyed the city.


I kind of hope that the questioner will edit the question to reflect the many possible answers, so here's my contribution: a phrase popular in the North-East of England:

All fur coat, and no knickers.

In other words, the person referred to is all show and no substance.

  • 1
    In Texas we say "All hat and no cattle." – Daniel Jun 19 '12 at 2:35

I like the answer "Poisoned Chalice", from @Jasper Loy above. You might also consider, when talking about a situation instead of a thing, "primrose path". A path or way that is pleasant to walk but leads to disaster.


"Good from far but far from good". For example, see that beautiful girl over there with phenomenal legs? Look again, it's a man.

  • 1
    I've heard this one "Good from afar..." – TecBrat Jun 18 '12 at 20:00
  1. A tool that seems useful but is not the correct tool for the job

  2. Something that seems like a good idea but after execution turns out to be problematic

I heard the expression "A gold shield", something that looks appealing but is not suitable for the task, gold being beautiful but soft and heavy, offering poor protection.

I would otherwise use the proverb, "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". Suggesting you need to have more tools or you'll constraint your perception of the task.


This may be a bit on the crude side, but a favorite of mine, that comes from Chinese, is "Shiny on the outside, just like donkey dung."


Gilded Turd (vulgar)

Good from afar, but far from good. (In relation to a snazzy car on the lot, which on closer inspection turns out to be a dud.)

I also like song title "She ain't pretty, she just looks that way." Which is similar to "Beauty is only skin deep."


People often describe things that do "more harm than good"


I will rather say it as "Illusion"

  • you make the assumption that all illusions are bad, which is not necessarily the case. – Tames Jun 18 '12 at 13:48

"No all that glitters is gold" - people sometimes chase after stuff because it looks like it's what they want, even when it isn't. Easily applicable to stuff like the "Cult of New" where people want the shiny new technology.

For furniture, you might use "rickety" to describe something that would break if you sat on it.

If you're talking just about tools, I suppose you could use "Golden Hammer". It means that you have a tool you like so much that you use it for everything.

"Thin Reed" - something that might seem sturdy, but would break if leaned on it.


You are probably looking for some variant of 'Promised so much, delivered so little'.


A chocolate teapot - although they work fine if the walls are thick enough!

  • A common variant is "about as much use as a Chocolate fireguard". However, I avoided that phrase in my answer to this question, because I feel it's not really what the questioner is looking for. – Dominic Cronin Jun 18 '12 at 20:40

Pandora's Box, A Can of Worms or All Hell Breaks Loose are examples of this in my opinion... each can be good in it's own sense to certain people... E.g. Pandora, a Fisherman and a Satanic Believer.

If you are looking for a more general term someone with anterior motives is someone who acts one way but has something else planned. Two Faced is also another way of saying this.

Wolf in sheep's clothing is also a nicer ways of articulating this.

See http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-proverbs.html

  • 2
    "Pandora's Box", "A Can of Worm", and "All Hell Breaks Loose" have nothing to do with something that appears good at first but turns out not to be good. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jun 18 '12 at 13:28
  • If you were Pandora, the box would be good at first same with the can of worms for a Fisherman... each statement has a context with an equal and opposite position via the context of its use. – Jay Jun 19 '12 at 0:57
  • "All hell breaks loose" in particular means something completely different... – Ry- Jun 19 '12 at 1:28
  • @Jay: if you're a fisherman that can of worms appears just as good or bad whether you've opened it or not. And the idiomatic phrase "a can of worms" has nothing to do with something that seemed like a good idea at the time but isn't now. Nor does the allusion of Pandora's Box. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jun 19 '12 at 12:23
  • 1
    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 How about eating very spicy, very greasy chorizo on the way in to work? – shinyspoongod Jun 20 '12 at 0:45

ًit's just like trusting a mirage or simply a mirage.


I like the word "Embellished"


I know you asked for a phrase, but I thought I'd drop my own two cents in.


"Apparent beauty is often deceptive"

What appears beautiful apparently, MAY NOT be beautiful. This states a strong possibility of not being beautiful but does not state that this is the case, always.


something that appears good but are actually bad

"The Only Free Cheese is in the Mousetrap", perhaps?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.