The phrase “a bull in a china shop” refers to a person who accidentally breaks things out of clumsiness.
Example: This is the fourth coffee mug I’ve bought for you in the last two months. You dropped and broke the other three. I have to say, you’re like a bull in a china shop, so try to be a little more careful with this one, okay?
Note: This idiom is sometimes confused as “a bowl in a china shop.”
Origin of ‘Bull In a China Shop’
A bull in a china shop is not something you’d normally see everyday… or ever for that matter. Instead, what you’ll actually see in these shops is chinaware. Yes, there are hundreds of porcelain made objects lining the shelves and tables of a china shop. Things such as bowls, cups, and dishes are everywhere, so be careful not to break anything. They’re delicate!
So what would be a nightmare for a china shop owner? Certainly an earthquake would be at the top of the list. All of that shaking would cause so much damage. But besides earthquakes, do you know what else would wreak havoc inside these places? Bulls, apparently!
The Idea Behind The Phrase
The implications of this phrase is that since bulls are massive creatures, if one were to walk around in a china shop, it would clumsily slam into shelves and tables, knocking all things porcelain to the ground. It sounds like a recipe for disaster—a large animal in a small shop filled with delicate objects—a lot could go wrong in that scenario. Having said that, would a bull in a china shop really be as bad as you think?
Probably not. It’s worth mentioning that on an episode of MythBusters, they put this saying to the test. How? Well, inside of a bull’s pen, they set up shelves and placed delicate tableware on them. Afterwards, they introduced two bulls into the pen. They brought one bull in first, then a second one a little later. Do you know what happened?
These massive creatures, despite weighing up to around 2,000 lb (907 kg), were actually quite elegant with their movement. 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. I’m sure the customers would mind, however.
Anyways, 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. It was printed by George Ashburner in 1807. The phrase is listed as the title of a poem (or song?) on page 161, where it reads:
“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’s an example of this idiom being used in a sentence:
- I broke the vase of flowers I got for my wife. It was an accident, but I need to be more careful. I’m like a bull in a china shop.
- My friend bumped into me because he wasn’t looking where he was going. He needs to slow down and pay attention because sometimes he’s like a bull in a china shop.