A person who accidentally breaks things because they are clumsy.
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 may be confused as “a bowl in a china shop.”
Origin of ‘Bull In a China Shop’
A bull in a china shop would be a rare sight, indeed. What you’ll actually see inside these places is chinaware. Things made from porcelain, like bowls, dishes, and cups line the shelves and tables.
These items are delicate and would easily break if they were to fall to the ground. Imagine the devastation an earthquake could cause! What a nightmare that would be for the owner.
But besides earthquakes, this phrase implies that bulls would wreak havoc inside these shops. The idea is that a bull, being the massive creature that it is, would clumsily slam into shelves and tables as it walks around, knocking any chinaware right to the ground. But would a bull in a china shop really be as bad as you think?
Maybe, but it’s worth noting that on an episode of MythBusters, they set up shelves inside of a bull’s pen and placed delicate tableware on them. Afterwards, they let two bulls in to walk around, one at a time, and then together.followed by another, and do you know what happened?
You would think with two lumbering bulls walking around at a brisk pace would be a recipe for disaster for the nearby chinaware. These are large animals, after all, weighing up to around 2,000 lb (907 kg).
Even so, the bulls carefully weaved through the stands, avoiding any contact with them. They also did so quite elegantly. So I guess having a bull in a china shop wouldn’t be such a terrible idea after all, though the other customers would have something to say.
Anyways, this expression is over 200 years old, at least. 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:
- If you want to get Ron a gift, remember that he’s a bull inside a china shop, so maybe get something that isn’t so easy to break.