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The meaning and origin of the expression: Tempest in a teapot

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Tempest in a teapot

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A small or unimportant event that is over-reacted to, as if it were of considerably more consequence.


Readers from England might well be tut-tutting about the mangling of their perfectly good phrase 'a storm in a teacup' and castigating the American 'tempest in a teapot' as a newcomer, having little more reason to exist than its neat alliteration.

In fact, the teacup wasn't the first location of the said storm, nor was the teapot. The phrase probably derives from the writing of Cicero, in De Legibus, circa 52BC. The translation of his "Excitabat fluctus in simpulo" is often given as "He was stirring up billows in a ladle". Other cultires have versions of the phrase in their own languages. The translation of the Netherlands version is 'a sotrm in a glass of water', and the Hungarian 'tempest in a potty'.

Whether the first user of the expression in English had Cicero in mind, he made no mention of tea-making, although he wasn't so far away. The Duke of Ormond's letters to the Earl of Arlington, 1678, include this:

"Our skirmish seems to be come to a period, and compared with the great things now on foot, is but a storm in a cream bowl."

Also, before the 'teacup/teapot' versions were well-established, another nobleman came up with a version that didn't involve the tea-table at all. The Gentleman's Magazine, 1830, records:

"Each campaign, compared with those of Europe, has been only, in Lord Thurlow's phrase, a storm in a wash-hand basin."

'Tempest in a teapot' is the version that is used most often in the USA, and hardly at all in other places, but which nevertheless appears to have a Scottish rather than an American origin. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1825, included a debate over the relative merits of the Scottish poets James Hogg and Tom Campbell. Campbell's imagery of raging tempests in his poetic work wasn't well received there:

What is the 'tempest raging o'er the realms of ice'? A tempest in a teapot!

Finally, we come to the version of the phrase that we English might imagine is the 'proper' original version. This appears to be neither original or English as it is later than the versions above, and the first mention that I can find of it also hails from north of the border. Catherine Sinclair, the Scottish novelist and children's writer, wrote a novel of fashionable society life, Modern Accomplishments, or the march of intellect, in 1838:

"As for your father's good-humoured jests being ever taken up as a serious affair, it really is like raising a storm in a teacup."