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’ll normally see, like, ever. Rather, in these shops, there is a whole bunch of chinaware. Hundreds of porcelain made objects—bowls, cups, and dishes—line the shelves and tables of a china shop. So be careful not to break anything, as these things are delicate!
Do you know what a china shop owner would find very unpleasant? Earthquakes are probably near the top of the list. All that shaking would cause devastating damage, I’d imagine.for a china shop owner. But besides earthquakes, what else would wreak havoc inside these places? Apparently bulls, based on this expression.
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 knock over shelves and tables, 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 in that scenario. 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 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 around 2,000 lb (907 kg), these large animals 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. Though the customers would probably be upset.
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, 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 are examples of this idiom used in a sentence:
- As I was putting flowers in a vase for my wife, I accidentally dropped the vase. I need to be more careful, I’m like a bull in a china shop sometimes.
- My friend often bumps into people 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 full of animal phrases. In fact, that page contains a list of all the animal related sayings currently on this site. Take a look!