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Sizzle and steak

Q From Pierre Leteurtre, France: I heard someone say in the BBC World Dateline London programme, “He is all steak and sizzle”. Does this mean “in totality”? Somewhat like lock, stock and barrel and so many other figurative sayings?

A You’re right to be puzzled by this. Assuming you didn’t mishear, it’s likely the speaker (who would have been a foreign correspondent based in London) misspoke the idiom. The idiom is properly he’s all sizzle and no steak, meaning that the person being spoken about had an appearance of ability but was actually ineffective.

He might have borrowed another idiom with the same sense and said the person was all talk and no action or — in the Texan version — all hat and no cattle. The idea behind all sizzle and no steak is that you figuratively get the anticipatory sound of the frying, perhaps even a delicious smell, but that in the end nothing appears except disappointment. A modern example:

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) responded Thursday by describing Obama’s initial speech as having “all sizzle and no steak.” He added: “That’s assuming that there is any sizzle left after you’ve reheated this thing so many times.”

Washington Post, 26 Jul. 2013.

The idiom is American but the first example that I’ve found in the historical record in the current form is actually from a debate in the Irish parliament, the Dáil, in 1962:

I think the Minister will concede that this Bill is all sizzle and no steak.

For its origin we have to go back several decades further, to the man who has been called the greatest salesman in the world. He was Elmer Wheeler, who codified years of selling during the Depression in a 1937 book on salesmanship called Tested Sentences that Sell. Among them was a line that’s been called the most famous piece of sales advice ever given and which gave him the nickname “Sizzle”: “Sell the sizzle not the steak” (he also wrote it as “Don’t sell the steak — sell the sizzle”). His argument was that a good salesman tells a potential customer what the product will do for him, not what it is. He wrote:

Sell the bubbles, not the champagne. Sell the pucker, not the pickles. Sell the whiff, not the coffee. Sell the extra freshness, not the eggs. Sell the flavor, not the butter.

Of course, after all the salesmanship is done and the sizzle has sold the steak, something tasty and filling has to be presented to the buyer; sell the sizzle without the steak and you’re a fraud. Somebody who’s trying hard to impress with his abilities had better come up with some steak to match his sizzling sell. Hence the disparaging quip, all sizzle and no steak.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Jan. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 18 January 2014.