Bull In A China Shop - Meaning, Origin and Usage


Imagine a bull inside a china shop. What do you think a bull would do inside a shop filled with plates and dishes? You’d probably expect the big, horned animal to be knocking over things, being clumsy, and not having the finesse to navigate the aisles of a shop filled with delicate crockery.

So, with the image of this animal inside the shop, you can instinctively know what the idiom means. The idiom, ‘bull in a china shop’ refers to someone clumsy, who leaves a mess behind with their harmful mistakes.

The idiom, however, can also refer to someone who’s indelicate, someone who doesn’t possess tact and diplomacy. This is someone you shouldn’t send to a business negotiation. This individual would probably make a mess of the deal and offend the other parties. That person would be ‘a bull in a china shop.’

‘Bull In A China Shop’ In A Sentence

‘Bull in a china shop’ describes a person who’s ungainly and is liable to cause an accident. It can also describe a socially inept person who’ll likely cause disruption and embarrassment in a social setting. Below are a few examples of how this idiomatic expression is used:

  • Seriously, you need to watch those kids; they’re like bulls in a china shop in there.
  • If she breaks another glass, get her a plastic tumbler instead. I swear she’s getting more like a bull in a china shop as she gets older.
  • Please, not everyone appreciates your approach. You’re not dynamic. You act more like a bull in a china shop.
  • Oh yes, the way he talks over other people shows he has as much tact as a bull in a china shop.

Using The Idiom Properly

The idiom refers to the bull’s lack of finesse and not to a bull’s rage. So, don’t use the phrase to describe someone who’s always angry, or people who are easily provoked to anger. The idiom ‘waving a red flag to a bull’ means ‘to incite or make someone angry,’ so it’s not the same.

Interestingly enough, several years ago the TV show ‘MythBusters’ put ‘bull in a china shop’ to the test. They showed not one but several bulls running around a makeshift china shop. Surprisingly, not one bull broke a single dish. The bulls were running, but they were nimble enough in avoiding the shelves.

Maybe the French and the Germans were right. It was the elephant that behaves like a, well, bull in a china shop.

Origin Of The Phrase

Apparently, the idiom, ‘bull in the china shop’ was already in use in the 1800s. ‘A Bull in a China Shop’ was listed as a title of a song in a pamphlet printed by M. Angus and Son, circa 1800, in Newcastle upon Tyne in England. Its lyrics, which used the idiom ‘A bull in a china shop’ in its current meaning, were also published in a collection of comic songs sung at Late Theatre Royal at Drury Lane, Sadler’s Wells, in London, in 1808 or 1809.

In America, the phrase turned up in a novel written by Frederick Marryat and published in 1834 titled ‘Jacob Faithful.’ However, many had theorized that the idiom may have originated in the 17th century in London when somebody brought cattle to the market.

Presumably, some bulls managed to escape and got inside a crockery shop. Thus, the idiom was born.

Similar Idioms

French, German, and a few other European languages have a similar idiom. Curiously, it wasn’t the bull that got into the china or porcelain shop, but the elephant. The animal may be different, but the meaning is the same.

The equivalent words to ‘bull in a china shop’ are heavy-handed, all thumbs, butter-fingered, klutz, ham-fisted, and others to denote physical clumsiness. For the other sense of the phrase—the clumsiness that refers to the personality—you can substitute words like uncouth, graceless, crass, and others.

Idioms That Mean The Opposite

‘Bull in a china shop’ refers to a person’s awkwardness physically and in personality. The opposite idioms would be ‘graceful as a swan’ or ‘poetry in motion.’ Both describe a person’s finesse. Here are a few examples:

  • The ballerina moves as graceful as a swan, even if she’s just reaching for a glass of water.
  • Did you see how Number 23 went for the layup? That was pure poetry in motion.

On the other hand, words like suave, smooth, discreet, urbane, and others are perfectly adequate if you describe a person who has tact and diplomatic skills.

Final Thoughts

Understanding idioms is essential in helping you to be fluent in the language. Some can be confusing, but some can be easy to understand, like the idiom ‘bull in a china shop.’ The discussion in this article about its origin and proper usage can help you grasp the meaning of the phrase better, as well as a deeper appreciation of the language.

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