What Does "Lean and Mean" Mean?

Debra Barnhart

The English idiom “lean and mean” usually signifies that a person is in shape and ready to take on any challenge, especially a physical one. An idiom is a phrase that has a figurative meaning apart from the literal definition of the words and is usually specific to a language and culture. Many idioms make metaphorical comparisons to the human body or animals.

Someone who is "lean and mean" is fit and ready to take on a physical challenge.
Someone who is "lean and mean" is fit and ready to take on a physical challenge.

A person who is lean and mean is physically fit and ready for a fight or a contest. This English saying conjures up images of a boxer in a ring with his or her head down and boxing gloves poised, ready to take on the opponent. In fact, the idiom “lean and mean” often has the words “and ready to fight” included at the end.

Boxers are characterized as "lean and mean" when they're preparing for a bout.
Boxers are characterized as "lean and mean" when they're preparing for a bout.

Lean and mean is also used to describe companies that are streamlined, competitive and without any excess fat. Generally, this idiom has positive implications, but in an economic downturn that may not be the case. When applied to a corporation, some people might think the term “lean and mean” signifies that the company has laid off a number of employees and is now ready to push the remaining staff to the very limits of their capabilities in order to make a profit.

Idioms are commonly used phrases that usually require a knowledge of the language and culture to be understood. The term “lean and mean” is culturally specific, especially taking into account the Western love for a thin, fit body image. The words “fat and mean” in English would not carry the same meaning of being fit and ready for a challenge, although they might in Japanese. A Japanese person might think of a Sumo wrestler. The Japanese have their own set of idioms — most of which would not mean much to a Westerner. Although the Japanese do have one idiom that translates “easy, a piece of cake,” which means “it’s simple” in both languages.

Idioms use metaphorical comparisons to make their point. Comparisons to the human body and animals seem to be the most common in the English language. For example, “Blood is thicker than water” signifies that family relationships are important, possibly more so than other relationships. A particularly fine saying is “bone of contention,” which is a metaphor for a troubling issue that is difficult for people to resolve. A person might picture two dogs circling around a bone when he or she hears this idiom.

Many mixed martial arts fighters are considered "lean and mean".
Many mixed martial arts fighters are considered "lean and mean".

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Discussion Comments

@pastanaga - Yeah, I've definitely known people who will let their dogs get to a very lean state in order to make them more aggressive, which I think is despicable. Dogs and cats shouldn't be allowed to get overweight, of course, and they should definitely be kept in good condition, but going hungry is not fun and animals can suffer just as much as people can.

We tend to think of fat as the enemy, but every mammal needs a layer of fat to help regulate temperature and to keep as reserves in case of illness.

If I said someone was lean and mean, I would say it as a joke, as in they were in top condition and raring to go. An animal that hasn't been fed properly is most definitely not in that state.


@anon265895 - I'm not sure exactly what that means for individual species, but I imagine it generally means that the animal is on the thin side, but not to the point where you would need to worry about it being too hungry.

The term lean and mean always makes me think of a dog that hasn't been fed enough, and is willing to go to some lengths in order to get food. Lean but not suffering sounds to me like an animal that is simply a bit on the thin side, perhaps because, like some people, they have a slightly higher metabolism than most.

The danger there is that they don't have fat reserves in case they get sick or exposed to bad conditions.


What does 'lean' mean for pets? If they are in lean condition but not suffering?

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