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The meaning and origin of the expression: Steal one's thunder

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Steal one's thunder

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Meaning

Someone 'steals your thunder' when they use your ideas or inventions to their own advantage.

Origin

Devices that produce the sound of thunder have been called on in theatrical productions for centuries. The methods used include - rolling metal balls down troughs, grinding lead shot in bowls, shaking sheets of thin metal. The latter device, called a thunder sheet, is still in use today. The bowl method was referred to in Alexander Pope's literary satire The Dunciad, published in 1728:

With Shakespear's nature, or with Johnson's art,
Let others aim: 'Tis yours to shake the soul
With Thunder rumbling from the mustard bowl.

John DennisThe story that lies behind 'stealing someone's thunder' is that of the literary critic and largely unsuccessful playwright, John Dennis. In 1704, Dennis's play Appius and Virginia was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre, London and he invented a new method of creating the sound of thunder for the production. We don't know now what this method was (some texts say it was a refinement of the mustard bowl referred to by Pope, in which metal balls were rolled around in a wooden bowl), but it is reported that after Appius and Virginia failed and was closed, the method was soon afterwards used in a production of Macbeth. Dennis was less than pleased at having his idea purloined and this account of his response was recorded by the literary scholar Joseph Spence (1699–1768) and later quoted in W. S. Walsh's Literary Curiosities, 1893:

"Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder."

The actual words are in doubt and are also reported as "That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder but not my play!". What is clear is that Dennis's experience was the source of this attractive little phrase.