Bull In a China Shop

Meaning of Bull In a China Shop:

The common expression a bull in a china shop means a person who accidentally breaks things out of clumsiness or because of their inattentive behavior.

Example: This is the fourth coffee mug I’ve bought for you in the last two months. You are like a bull in a china shop, so be a little more careful with this one and try not to break it.

Note: This idiom is sometimes confused as “a bowl in a china shop.”

Synonyms: 1. all thumbs, 2. butter fingers, 3. having two left feet

A bull in a china shop breaking plates and vases.
Why are you in here? You’re a bull, you have no use for such things!

Origin of “Bull In a China Shop”

Literally speaking, have you ever seen a bull in a china shop before? Probably not, unless there are some amazing deals going on! Joking aside, what is seen at a china shop? They typically have a whole bunch of chinaware for sale, that is, hundreds of objects made of porcelain, usually. Things like bowls, cups, and dishes are plentiful in these places, so be careful not to break anything!

Now, do you know what a china shop owner would hate to have happen? Earthquakes are probably high on that list, but let’s steer more towards what this common expression says. Yes, let’s talk about a bull in a china shop; it would be devastating, or would it be?

The Idea Behind The Phrase

When thinking about this phrase in literal terms, we know that bulls are big creatures. So if one were to walk into a china shop, it would clumsily knock over shelves and tables as it moved around, sending all things porcelain straight to the ground, right? Indeed, such circumstances sound like a recipe for disaster—a large animal in a small shop surrounded by delicate, breakable objects—a lot could go wrong.

However, would a bull in a china shop really be that bad? Maybe not. It’s worth mentioning that on an episode of a TV show called MythBusters, they put this common saying to the test. How? They set up shelves inside of a bull’s pen and placed tableware on them. Afterwards, they introduced two bulls into the pen. They brought one bull in first, then a second one came in a little later. Do you know what happened?

Despite weighing up to 2,000 lb (907 kg), these large animals moved around everything quite elegantly. The bulls carefully weaved through the shelves, avoiding contact with them. That’s right, they didn’t break anything during this! So, I guess having a bull in a china shop wouldn’t be such a terrible idea after all. Then again, they are potentially dangerous animals, so no, it’d still be a bad idea.

The Origin

Anyway, this expression is at least over 200 years old. The earliest I could find it in print is from a book called Ashburner’s New Vocal and Poetic Repository; a Collection of Favourite Songs and Poetic Fugitive Pieces, printed by George Ashburner in 1807. The phrase is listed as the title of a poem (or song?) on page 161:

“A Bull In A China Shop
You’ve heard of a frog in a opera-hat,
‘Tis a very old tale of a mouse and a rat.
I could sing you another, as pleasant, mayhap,
Of a kitchenthat wore a fine high-caul’d cap:
But my muse on a far nolber subject shall drop,
A bull who got into a China-shop.”

Example Sentences

Here are examples of this idiom in a sentence:

  • I knocked over the vase of flowers I got for my wife. I need to be more careful, I’m like a bull in a china shop sometimes.
  • When my friend gets distracted by his phone, he’s like a bull in a china shop; I wish he would pay more attention to where he’s going.

Similar Examples:

  • Due to my butter fingers, I dropped the glass picture frame that I was about to hang on the wall.

See Also:

Animal Phrases

We have a page filled with animal phrases. It contains a list of all the animal related expressions on this site. So feel free to take a look!