“An elephant in a china shop”: on the history of the expression.



The history of “an elephant in a china shop” metaphor goes back four centuries. In this form, it is used mainly outside the circle of the English language. The expression was preceded by “a bull in a china shop” and “blind horse in a china shop”. The image of a bull smashing a china shop spread thanks to a farcical song (c. 1800) to the words of C. Dibdin Jr. The story of “a bull in a china shop” has an analogue in ancient literature, namely, in the fable about a donkey in a pottery shop. The meaning of these stories is different, and the ancient fable was hardly the direct source of the English proverb. However, an indirect connection cannot be ruled out, through the sayings “(like) a monkey in a glass shop” (seventeenth century). The article also explores other variants of the metaphor in different languages and cultures, from a mouse and a cat to a bear and a hippopotamus in a china shop.


family phrases; fable; political satire; C. Dibdin Jr.; J. Grimaldi; G.A. Stevens; I. Cruikshank; N. Agnivtsev; H. de Balzac; J.-J. Boisard; Pigault-Lebrun.

DOI: 10.31249/lit/2022.04.03

Download text