I heard of the expression "all retch and no vomit" for the first time, and the references I could find by googling it are not really clear to me. Here is the context where I found it:

What we are doing is we are bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we are living... in order that, er, that they would-may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same things so it's all retch and no vomit — it never gets there. (Alan Watts)

What would be a definition for the expression?

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retching#Versus_vomiting Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 13:53
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    The difference between "all retch and no vomit" and all these proposed synonyms is that the original phrase stressed that it's continued, unrelenting grimness, with no satisfaction in sight. Phrases like "all bark and no bite" or "all mouth and no trousers" don't communicate that at all.
    – J-P
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 15:49
  • Apparently this quote is transcribed from Alan Watts' seminar "Do You Do It, or Does It Do You?" (specifically, a portion frequently referenced as "What if money was no object?"). Here's a timestamped clip that includes these lines of audio from it.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 3:56

5 Answers 5


I think the writer meant all retch and no vomit. To retch is to make an involuntary attempt to vomit without necessarily succeeding. In other words, as the writer himself says, ‘it never gets there’.

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    I'd also like to think that Alan Watts was clever enough to spot the pun in phrasing it that way so soon after his repetition of "bringing up".
    – J-P
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 15:47

This quote is from a speech by Alan Watts (1915–1973). The intention of this idiom is to indicate that one puts forth a significant – and unpleasant – effort (retching) without getting satisfaction of the effort (vomiting).

In relation to the context of the idiom, the "retching" is all the effort people put forth in their lives to provide the money they seek to sustain their life. "Vomiting" (the goal of "retching" literally) is applied metaphorically as living one's desired life state.

An example of this is one who desires to be a musician, but finds work as a computer programmer to fund his musical activities – yet finds the effort of being a programmer (the "retch") leaves no energy, time, or some other capacity to actually become a successful musician (the "vomit").

  • Plus the humour angle that even though vomiting after retching is the goal of retching and is somewhat satisfying, the whole thing is still pretty unpleasant! Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 4:39
  • I'm used to hearing a similar couplet as "All hat and no cattle" referring to a Texan as having the hat, the appearance of a cattle man, but no cattle to back up his claim. As a programmer I can attest to the veracity of this position. Still this OP question busted me up. LMFAO ROTF
    – Elliot
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 5:53

The retching is the miserable day-to-day life that we are living and we never get to the "vomit" that is the end of misery.


"All retch and no vomit" — just going through the motions producing nothing... at least not the intended/expected outcome.

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    This doesn't really add anything to the answers already given. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 20:11

It's more than "all bark and no bite"... It's tolerating the miserable in the pursuit of the undesirable.

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    Do you have sources for this?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Feb 15, 2013 at 3:29

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