Gen. Hugh S. Johnson’s Native American narrative about “all hat and no cattle”

Snip: The Evening News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), May 10, 1941 — Newspapers.com (Fair Use).
“It is what the Indians, who also invented the words ‘bull,’ ‘booshwa,’ and ‘bohee,’ call ‘Big hat — no cattle.’” — Hugh S. Johnson, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 16, 1937.

In a textbook example of psychological projection the idiom “all hat and no cattle” (“big hat, no cattle”) is in the news (again), but there’s not much on the web concerning its etymology. Elyse Bruce (2013) documented an early reference in 1944 (according to the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs), but General Hugh S. Johnson — a member of FDR’s Brain Trust — used the phrase in a 1937 piece criticizing government inaction on affordable housing in the midst of a fading recovery.

Related coverage via The NewYouker.com…

And as the drums of World War II were beating in May 1941, he elaborated with a Native American story about its meaning in a way that I think resonates so much today. Of course, in our case the “empty barrel” (in a related instance of psychological projection) is dangerously loaded as he “spins and shrieks like a whirling Dervish” and “waves an imitation bloody scalp (having never himself taken a real one for he is a phoney warrior) and calls for slaughter.”

According to Johnson the phrase has the same meaning as the name of a leader of the Cheyenne war-dance — Chief Bo-Hee — who “boasts of the prowess of his tribe and the weakness of their neighbors. He wants to blast Toh-Kee-oo, the great war-village of the Ja-Pon-Knees, old and young alike, into a ‘shambles.’” But “too many braves have Bo-Hee’s number.”

Snip: The Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1980 — Newspapers.com.

Yet “the whole effect long mediated and devised by the Great Medicine Man in the Big White Tepee does it. The war drums rise to an unbearable din. Scores of unthinking young men join the dance, leaping and bounding in an ecstasy of savage emotion, uttering blood-curdling howls, shrieks and gobbles, brandishing weapons and even assaulting each other.”

Related coverage via ForeignPolicy.com.

Johnson continues: “Reluctantly, at first, some of the more deliberate men are drawn in as by the primitive fascination of a voo-doo orgiastic ritual. Even before Bo-Hee had gone juramentado a big broad Boadicean squaw has been screaming and tearing her hair before the ladies’ rooting section…the whole tribe, including the squaws, go utterly hogwild, — writhing, screaming, tumbling the ground like Holy Rollers even lacerating themselves in an orgy of crazed emotion.”

In conclusion, he says the “climax of the present Sioux Messiah dance (much worse than the Cheyenne ritual) that has jammed up the ether waves and filled the press with tom-toms for immediate war in the last few days — especially when you look back over the months at its subtle, creeping beginnings — it is pretty hard to distinguish from my Cheyenne parable.” But aside from the “empty barrel” being dangerously loaded and there being nothing “subtle” about his culture war beginnings, it’s pretty clear to me who sounds like Johnson’s Chief Bo-Hee today. And Johnson’s 1937 reference to this Native-American origin for “all hat and no cattle” is the earliest usage of the “old Texas saying” that I found. Tschüss!

Related coverage via NPR.org.
Updated Oct 21: By the WashingtonPost.com.
Updated Oct 21: By David Mack (Buzzfeed).

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