‘bull in a china shop’ – ‘éléphant dans un magasin de porcelaine’

The phrase like a bull in a china shop means behaving recklessly and clumsily in a situation where one is likely to cause damage.

It appeared as the title of a song in the following pamphlet printed by M. Angus and Son, Newcastle upon Tyne, apparently around 1800:

A Garland of New Songs, Containing 1 The Frog in the Cock’d Hat. 2 A Sailor’s Delight. 3 A Bull in a China Shop. 4 Widow Walmsley’s Shiners.

That song was mentioned in the following announcement published in the Morning Advertiser (London) of Monday 11th July 1808:

Aquatic Theatre, Sadler’s Wells.—Under the Patronage of his Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence.—This present Evening, July 11, and every Evening during the Week, […] an entire New Comic Pantomime, with new music, scenery, machinery, dresses, and decorations, called Harlequin Highflyer; or, Off She Goes! Principal Characters, […] Clown Mr. Grimaldi*, who will sing two Comic Songs incidental to the Piece, called “O, my Deary,” and “A Bull in a China Shop.”

* Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), English actor, comedian and dancer

The lyrics of the song were published in Joe Grim’s Delight, or, comic Songster, for 1809, containing a great Variety of much-admired comic Songs, sung at the Late Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Sadler’s Wells, [&c.], printed in London by D. Wayte at the end of 1808 or beginning of 1809:

A Bull in a China Shop.
Sung by Mr. Grimaldi, at Sadler’s-Wells.

You’ve heard of a frog in an opera hat,
’Tis a very odd tale of a mouse and a rat;
I could sing you another as pleasant, mayhap:
Of a kitten that wore a fine high caul’d cap;
But my muse on a far nobler subject shall drop,
A bull who got into a china shop.

With his right leg, left leg, upper leg, under leg,
Patrick’s day in the morning.

He popp’d in by chance at the china shop door,
Where they very soon found that the bull was a bore,
The shopman to drive him out tried with much care,
The floor being cover’d with crockery ware,
And among it, resenting the shopman’s taunt,
The bull began dancing the cow’s carrant.

With his right leg, &c.

Whate’er with his feet he could’nt assail,
He made ducks and drakes with his horns and his tail;
So frisky he was with his downs and his ups,
Each tea service prov’d he was quite in his cups:
He play’d mag’s diversion among all the crates,
He splinter’d the dishes and dish’d all the plates.

With his right leg, &c.

The china shop master, a little fat man,
Popp’d in, and the bull at him furiously ran,
Caught him up by the waistband without more ado,
And toss’d him completely the shop-window through;
The poor little man flew up like a dart,
And down he came plump in a scavenger’s cart.

With his right leg, &c.

The poor china seller retriev’d this affray,
But the neighbour’s laugh at him to this very day;
He has a nick-name for derision a mark,
For they one and all call him the little mud lark;
While the joke he enjoys, grateful for the relief,
But from that time to this he can’t stomach bull beef.

With his right leg, &c.

I have, however, found an early use of the phrase that might owe nothing to the song titled A Bull in a China Shop. On Tuesday 9th November 1802, The Morning Chronicle (London) published an open letter “to the Ex-War Secretary” purportedly written by a bull named Taurus on behalf of his “family (bull, cow, calf, or ox)”. This letter is full of puns, as in the following passage:

Seriously, we have been long ruminating upon our condition, and chewing the cud of bitterness: but our voices will soon be heard in a general e-bull-ition.

The phrase itself appears in the following sentence:

Your conduct is said to have been, at times, so queer in the Cabinet, that the witty Members compared you to a Bull in a China Shop!!!

The French equivalent phrase is comme un éléphant dans un magasin de porcelaine, like an elephant in a china shop.

It is first recorded, with porcelaine in the plural, in Violettes parlementaires (Parliamentary Violets), published in La Revue comique à l’usage des gens sérieux (The Comic Review for Serious People – Paris) of 24th February 1849 (the French politician Antoine Avond (1819-66) was a member of the Assemblée nationale in 1848-49):

Il est des jours où […] Avond vole comme un gros papillon à travers les fleurs représentatives. Ces jours-là, il écrase M. Molé, enjambe M. Thiers, aplatit M. Duvergier de Hauranne et fait voler l’abat-jour de M. Jules de Lasteyrie. A une séance où Avond avait endommagé l’orteil du joli M. Fresneau, celui-ci dit à son voisin : « Voilà un gaillard qui se comporte parmi nous comme un éléphant dans un magasin de porcelaines… »
     translation:
There are days when […] Avond flies like a big butterfly through the representative flowers. Those days, he crushes Mr. Molé, strides over Mr. Thiers, flattens Mr. Duvergier de Hauranne and makes M. Jules de Lasteyrie’s lampshade fly off. At a session during which Avond had hurt the toe of the pretty Mr. Fresneau, the latter said to his neighbour: “There is a fellow who behaves among us like an elephant in a china shop…”

The phrase un éléphant dans un magasin de porcelaines is likely to be an alteration of the earlier un taureau dans un magasin de porcelaines, itself a loan translation from English.

The earliest occurrences of un taureau dans un magasin de porcelaines that I have found are from:

Types de taverne, by Charles Whitehead, published in Les Anglais peints par eux-mêmes. Par les sommités littéraires de l’Angleterre (The English depicted by themselves. By the prominent authors of England – Paris, 1840), a collection of stories translated from English;

Nemrod en Allemagne (Nimrod in Germany), a translation of Foreign Sporting, by ‘Nimrod’, originally published in 1840 in The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist (London); this translation appeared in Revue britannique. Choix d’articles traduits des meilleurs écrits périodiques de la Grande-Bretagne (British Review. Selection of articles translated from the best periodical writings of Great Britain – Paris, 1841).

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