paper tiger

A paper tiger is someone who at first glance seems to be in charge but who, on closer examination, is completely powerless.

A paper tiger gives the impression of being powerful — perhaps he is a king or a high school principal — but lacks any real power. This phrase comes from an old Chinese idiom, which describes a paper tiger as a "blustering, harmless fellow," and which was popularized when Mao Zedong was quoted in 1956 calling the United States a paper tiger. The idiom makes sense when you think of how terrifying a real tiger is — and how harmless a paper version would be.

Definitions of paper tiger
  1. noun
    the nature of a person or organization that appears powerful but is actually powerless and ineffectual
    “he reminded Mao that the paper tiger had nuclear teeth”
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    type of:
    impotence, impotency, powerlessness
    the quality of lacking strength or power; being weak and feeble
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