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Why do we say "A tempest in a teapot"?

Well-Known Expressions

A tempest in a teapot


An over reaction that is out of all proportion to a minor event


Variations on this expression can be found in a great many languages and far back in time. The first known use is by Marcus Tullius Cicero around 52BC, who in De Legibus (The Laws) wrote excitabat enim fluctus in simpulo ut dicitur Gratidius (for Gratidius raised a tempest in a ladle, as the saying is).

The imagery of weather and a small container representing a minor event magnified out of all proportion can be found in many languages. Some talk of storms in cups (including Arabic and Bengali), others refer to storms in glasses of water (including French and Dutch). Others reduce the size of the vessel even further, such as Yiddish where there are squalls in spoons of water, and Greek where one drowns in a spoon of water.

Then there are those who favor teacups, such as Tamil and Korean which both find typhoons in teacups, and Chinese that apparently covers both bases with winds and waves in teacups, and storms in teapots.

As for Britain and the USA. In Britain storm in a teacup rules, while in the USA there are tempests in teapots.

Is one right and the other wrong? Which came first? has strong opinions on this topic, pointing out that Cicero's ladle predates American teapots and British teacups so neither can be seen as the first. Also, the English language has seen multiple variations over time such as "a storm in a cream bowl" (The Duke of Ormond, 1678) and "a storm in a wash-basin" (The Gentleman's Magazine, 1830).

As for where the "English" and "American" versions originated - the earliest references to both are found in Scotland:

"What is the 'tempest raging o'er the realms of ice'? A tempest in a teapot!" - Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1825

"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." - Modern Accomplishments by Scottish novelist Catherine Sinclair, 1838

Alphabetical list of expressions

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