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Tempest in a teapot

Q From Susan G McManus: Where does tempest in a teapot come from?

A I’m not familiar with that American version. If I wanted to express the same idea, I’d say it was a storm in a teacup, which is the common British equivalent. Either way, it’s a delightful phrase for a fuss about nothing very much, or a dispute of only minor or local importance.

These two forms are by no means the only ones. The big Oxford English Dictionary has examples of a storm in a cream bowl and a storm in a wash-hand basin, and suggests that there were others. All have this idea of a violent disturbance in a small compass, by implication therefore one of little significance. The alliteration of tempest in a teapot must have helped its acceptance.

Of the two best-known versions tempest in a teapot seems to be the older, since I’ve found an example from a long-defunct journal called The United States Democratic Review of January 1838 about the Supreme Court: “This collegiate tempest in a teapot might serve for the lads of the University to moot; but, surely, was unworthy the solemn adjudication attempted for it”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Apr. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 19 April 2003.