'All Bark and No Bite': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 20, 2023

Have you ever heard the expression 'all bark and no bite'? Do you know what it means? In this article, you'll learn the meaning and origin of this phrase and how to use it.

To begin, here's the short version:

  • 'All bark and no bite' refers to someone who appears to be threatening but will likely do you no harm.

What Does 'All Bark and No Bite' Mean?

The phrase 'all bark and no bite' is an idiom, which means it can't be interpreted literally, although the literal meaning can help you understand what it means. Imagine a dog that is barking at you loudly; this might be a scary situation. But as long as the animal doesn't bite you, there's no harm done: It's all just threats.

That's the idea behind this phrase, except 'bark' is a metaphor for someone's words, threats, or claims, and 'bite' is a metaphor for their actions.

The dictionary defines it as:

Full of big talk but lacking action, power, or substance; pretentious. 

Imagine, for instance, that your neighbor is threatening to cut down your tree if you don't trim it, as it's shielding the sunshine from their house in the morning.

You might say:

She says she's going to cut it down but I don't think she'll do it; she's all bark and no bite.

Where Does 'All Bark and No Bite' Come From?

The exact origin of this idiom is uncertain, but it likely comes from observations of dogs. Dogs often bark loudly to warn or intimidate intruders or other dogs, but not all of them will actually bite or attack. The idiom likely draws on this behavior to describe people who talk tough but don't back it up with action.

The phrase has been in use for quite some time, with variations of it appearing in written works as far back as the 19th century.

Though not the same phrase word-for-word but still representing the same idea, John Heywood's glossary of proverbs Thersytes, published around 1550, states:

Great barking dogges, do not most byte And oft it is sene that the best men in the hoost Be not suche, that vse to bragge moste.

This can be roughly translated to "Most barking dogs do not bite, and it is often the case that the best man is not he that brags most."

Here's another example. In The New Bath Guide by Christopher Anstey, published in 1766, there is a line that conveys a similar idea:

All show and no substance, like Mr. ——.

While not an exact match, it reflects the idea of someone being flashy or impressive in appearance but lacking substance.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning and origin of this phrase, let's take a look at some examples of sentences that use it:

Despite his tough talk, he's all bark and no bite when it comes to facing challenges.

The aggressive dog turned out to be all bark and no bite; it will usually just run away when confronted.

The boss may shout a lot, but he's all bark and no bite; he rarely takes disciplinary action.

Her threats to quit the team were empty; she's proven to be all bark and no bite.

Don't be intimidated by his bluster; he's all bark and no bite.

Give me one good reason why I should believe you; you're all bark and no bite. 

He talks a big game, but he's all bark and no bite when it comes to taking risks.

The tough-looking biker turned out to be all bark and no bite; he was actually friendlier than we thought.

Despite all the warnings, the school principal never formally addressed the issue of bullying, so it remained unresolved, making their anti-bullying policy seem like all bark and no bite.

The company's threats of legal action against the breach were just empty words; they were all bark and no bite.

Other Ways to Say 'All Bark and No Bite'

There are many other ways to express that someone may appear menacing but is of no real threat.

Some of them include:

  • A barking dog seldom bites
  • All talk and no action
  • Big hat, no cattle
  • Empty vessels make the most sound

There are also many other ways to say it using the same template. Here are just some of them.

If you're up for a bit of fun, you could try making up your own:

  • all bluff and bluster
  • all crown, no filling
  • all foam, no beer
  • all hammer, no nail
  • all icing, no cake
  • all lime and salt, no tequila
  • all mouth and no trousers
  • all shot, no powder
  • all sizzle and no steak
  • all wax and no wick
  • all motion and no meat
  • all show, no go
  • all fur coat and no knickers
  • all retch and no vomit
  • all fart and no poo

Concluding Thoughts

That pretty much sums it up. If you ever meet someone (or perhaps you already know them) who always talks a big talk but never actually takes any action, you might tell them that they are 'all bark and no bite.' That ought to stump them.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!   

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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