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Bull in a china shop

Q From Gautam Y Utekar, India: Your site makes the study of English more fascinating! I always wondered as to what might be the origin of the phrase a bull in the china shop. We studied English composition in school and this phrase cropped up many times.

A It’s still common, though rarely meaning reckless destruction of a physical kind. More usually, it’s a way to express a metaphorical clumsiness. The damage is caused by want of diplomacy or tact or through mindless aggression that falls short of actual violence.

One minute he’s a bull in a china shop; the next an impervious super negotiator.

Boston Globe, 24 Oct. 2009.

It’s on record from the beginning of the nineteenth century. It’s one of those idioms that seems to have arrived fully formed without anybody having to go to the trouble of creating it. Was there ever a real bull that rampaged through a real china shop, leaving chaos and destruction behind him, so giving rise to the simile? Perhaps not, though an open-fronted shop in a market town might easily have had such an encounter with an escaped animal. But if you wanted to form a phrase that suggested uncontrolled and uncaring actions with disastrous results, to set a bovine rampaging though a porcelain emporium would be as good as you could wish for.

By 1834, the idiom was well enough known that a music-hall song full of bad puns was written about it:

Whate’er with his feet he couldn’t assail,
He made ducks and drakes with his horns and his tail.
So frisky he was, with his downs and his ups,
Each tea service proved he was quite in his cups.
He play’d mag’s diversion among all the crates,
He splinter’d the dishes, and dish’d all the plates.

A Bull in A China Shop, an anonymous contribution to The Universal Songster or Museum of Mirth, 1834. Mag’s diversion, or Meg’s diversion, was then a common term for boisterous behaviour or unruly antics.

The following extract suggests that it might have had its origin in a minor theatrical production, though we shouldn’t read too much into this review from two centuries ago. It is, on the other hand, the first recorded use of the phrase I’ve been able to find:

The business is whimsical and amusing; the changes are numerous, and the tricks, though highly ludicrous, are for the most part original; — at least, we do not remember to have met with any thing like them before. The extraordinary spectacle of a Bull in a China Shop afforded great entertainment; and an artificial elephant introduced, was welcomed with loud plaudits.

The London Review and Literary Journal, Jan. 1812, reporting a performance of a pantomime called The White Cat, or Harlequin in Fairy Land.

As a linguistic curiosity, related expressions occur in many European languages — among them Russian, Latvian, Polish, Dutch, German, French, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish — though all of them feature an elephant, not a bull. The last two, however, prefer to place him in a glassware store rather than a china shop. English is the odd one out in using the homely bull. There’s probably a story in there, if one could only tease it out.

By the way, the only recorded incident I know of in which a bull was deliberately introduced into a china shop was one engineered by the famous American publicist and press agent Jim Moran, who in January 1940 led a bull through a New York City china shop as a publicity stunt. The bull didn’t damage anything, but some china was broken when a bystander backed into a table while getting out of the way. An experiment by the US television programme Mythbusters in 2007 ran bulls through a simulated china shop in a corral. The animals proved to be nimble at avoiding bumping into shelves or breaking anything, though as the aisles between the shelves were all open-ended the test didn't properly simulate a real shop, in which the bulls would have had to turn round in their own lengths to get out.

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Page created 21 Nov 2009