The phrase a bull in a china shop refers to a person who accidentally breaks things out of clumsiness.
Origin of ‘Bull In a China Shop’
Literally speaking, a bull in a china shop is not something you would normally see, like, ever. Rather, what is in these shops is a whole bunch of chinaware—hundreds of porcelain made objects. Things like bowls, cups, and dishes line the shelves and tables. So be careful not to break anything!
Now, there are at least two things I can think of that a china shop would not like. Number one are earthquakes. All that shaking would cause devastating damage! Besides that, and according to this expression, bulls would also wreak havoc in a china shop. Let’s take a look at that.
The Idea Behind The Phrase
The implications of this phrase is that since bulls are massive creatures, if one were to enter a china shop, it would clumsily knock over shelves and tables as it walked around, sending all things porcelain straight to the ground. Those circumstances certainly sound like a recipe for disaster—a large animal in a small shop filled with delicate objects—a lot could go wrong. However, would a bull in a china shop really be that bad?
Probably not. It’s worth mentioning that on an episode of MythBusters, they put this common saying to the test. How? Inside of a bull’s pen, they set up shelves 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 quite elegantly. The bulls carefully weaved through the shelves, avoiding all contact with them. Nothing was broken! So… I guess having a bull in a china shop wouldn’t be such a terrible idea after all. Though they are potentially dangerous animals, so no, it’d still be a bad idea.
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.”
Here are examples of this idiom in a sentence:
- As I was putting flowers in a vase for my wife, I ended up knocking it over. I need to be more careful, I’m like a bull in a china shop sometimes.
- My friend frequently bumps into people accidentally because he doesn’t look where he’s going! He’s like a bull in a china shop when he walks around.
We have a page filled with animal phrases. That page contains a list of all the animal related expressions on this site. Take a look!