Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Episode 130: Bull in a China Shop Shownotes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 130: Bull in a China Shop

Record Date: October 31, 2021

Air Date: November 3, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take a group of words and try to tell the story from their entry into the English language, to how they are used today.

This week I am going way back to something I was frequently called as a teenager. For most of my life I’ve been a big beefy boy, and there was a timeframe in which I was still growing into my frame. The word “graceful” would not have been applied to me in any physical sense. And it is in those memories that I want to explore the phrase, a bull in a china shop. 


A Bull in a China Shop, according to Merriam Websters, means 


a person who breaks things or who often makes mistakes or causes damage in situations that require careful thinking or behavior

End Quote

A quick break down of the words in the phrase…

A bull, according to Oxford English Dictionary, is 


The male of any bovine animal; most commonly applied to the male of the domestic species ( Bos taurus); also of the buffalo, etc

End Quote

Or to grossly oversimplify it, a male cow. Well, a male bovine that can still have kids. A cow would be a female that has already had kids. And a heifer would be a female that has not yet had kids.

And this has been dubious animal husbandry with Dan.  

Next part of the phrase is china shop

China, in this context according to the OED, is


A species of earthenware of a fine semi-transparent texture, originally manufactured in China, and first brought to Europe in the 16th cent. by the Portuguese, who named it porcelain. Early in 18th cent. it began to be manufactured in Europe.

End quote

And a little more backstory from the OED on the phrase, china-ware


China-ware (which naturally occurs earlier than china) had at first the literal sense of ‘ware from China’. This was soon shortened to china, and as the shortened form became gradually the common name of the material, ‘china-ware’ came to be regarded as ‘ware made of china or porcelain’, the sense it now bears.

End quote

And since at least the 1600s, “China shop” has meant a place that sold china-ware or other rarities. Like in this example from a 1616 letter by Thomas Rowe, the English royal envoy to the Agra court of the Great Mughal Emperor, Jahangir*, which was later published in The embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the court of the Great Mogul, 1615-19: as narrated in his journal and correspondence 


I thought all India a China shop, and that I should furnish all my Frendes with rarietyes

End Quote

*Dalrymple, Willian (2019). The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (1 ed.). London: Bloomsbury. pp. 15–19. ISBN 978-1-4088-6437-1.

With this little background information out of the way, let’s move onto our phrase. Shauna, any thoughts on when this might have originated?

This seems to originate from a Charles Dibdin song, written in the late 1790s or early 1800s. It was called Bull in a China Shop, and we know it was written before 1802, but may have been written before the turn of the Century. I found reference to a pamphlet that advertised the song in a performance in 1800, but I was unable to verify it. The earliest I could verify was...

July 25, 1808, The Morning Chronicle out of London 


Mr. Grimaldi will sing two comic songs, incidental to the piece, called ‘O, My Deary’ and ‘A Bull in a China Shop’.

End Quote

The Mr. Grimaldi mentioned is Joseph Grimaldi, later to be known for his performances of Joey the Clown, and who was arguably one of the most well known performers of his time in London. More on him in the behind the scenes video on Patreon,  

I’ll read some of the lyrics as recorded in Oliver’s Comic Songs, A Selection of the Whimsical, Witty, Eccentric, Comical, Curious, Tragical, Odd, Droll, Humorous, Burlesque, and Laughable. Part 1. 

This was first published by Oliver and Boyd in 1805.  I’ll read from a copy that came to the British Museum in 1893. 


The song wasn’t just popular on the European side of the Atlantic.

Of course, there are many references to our phrase that don’t directly mention the song. Here’s one from…

Let’s jump into the 1900s now with an article titled Who Will Pose for the Statue of Us When We are Dead and Gone out of the

Here’s one that seems a little sexist, but I must admit that despite being partnered for 20 years, I still would struggle to buy hosiery. So this could be talking to me in 2021. Here’s a last minute Mother’s Day ad in the... 


MEN! Tomorrow - the last day before Mother’s Day - we’re going to expedite your gift shopping! There’ll be no waiting… none of that “bull in a china shop” feeling most men get when they’re buying feminine gifts! We’ve made it all easy for you! Your gift Hosiery will be wrapped right in the Hosiery department… and you’ll be wondering why you put it off so long… it was all so simple!

End Quote

Even Alfred Hitchcock got into the action with a 1958 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Season 3, Episode 26 titled “Bull in a China Shop”, which was adapted from the short story of the same name by C.B. Gilford. 

Here’s a 2010 note from Google Books about the story:

"When a houseful of sweet little old ladies discover that a handsome bachelor lives across the street, they are delighted. When they learn that he is none other than Detective Dennis O'Finn, of Homicide, they are faced with the problem of how to attract his attention. The answer is simplicity itself: a nice, genteel homicide with a cup of tea as the murder weapon. When a brash young woman reporter begins to suspect the truth, she becomes the next target. O'Finn is terribly embarrassed when at last he discovers that he himself is the motive for these madcap goings-on, and, in desperation, manages to solve the case. But the dear old ladies are too fond of him and in the end they turn the tables on him! First a short story in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, later a success on 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents,' and now a stage veteran of hundreds of performances around the country, Bull in a China Shop continues to enchant audiences everywhere!” 

And one more, a slightly risque joke, showing the phrases’ use in humor, with no explanation, highlighting how common a phrase it had become. This is...

Okay… we’ve looked at what we know about the origins of the phrase and what it figuratively means. But what about the literal statement? Is a bull actually destructive with no regard for things around him? A quick wikipedia search says bulls can be 500 to 1,000 kilograms, which is about a quarter to a half of a 2022 Ford F150 for my fellow Americans listeners who absolutely refuse to use the metric system. 

But back to the real question here… would a bull in a china shop actually act with a reckless disregard? For that, I’ll turn to the Mythbusters TV show, where the team put this phrase to the test. We’ll link to the video from Discovery TV on our patreon.

And it turns out… bulls are quite graceful. They ran all around in the area and didn’t hit a single rickety shelf and certainly didn’t knock down any of the fancy dishes. Granted, the bulls weren’t already miffed like the ox in the previous story was. But still, the mythbusters say this one is busted.

Before we get to some modern examples, we have a few sponsors to thank!

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig-Lopez. 

Because of Pat, Mary, and many others, you don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy Bunny Trails week after week. But even though Dan and I volunteer our time, there are still real costs to making this show, including hosting fees, equipment maintenance, domain costs, and more. 

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Modern Uses

Grace Potter - Bull in a China Shop off the 2004 album Original Soul

You're making a scene

You're out of line

You're rocking the boat

Stepping out of time

They may think you're crazy

But I think you're alright

So let's you and me kick it up tonight

Like a bull in a China shop

Bull in a China shop

Barenaked Ladies - Bull in a China Shop off the 2010 album Barenaked Ladies Are Me

I'm a kid in a candy store

I'm a bull in a china shop

I'm a tired old metaphor

For everything you can't afford

And everything you can't afford to be

I'm a public embarrassment

I'm a bottle of diet poison

I'm a walking advertisement

For everything I never meant

And everything I never meant to be

I can't hear a thing

'Cause I've stopped listening

Switchfoot - Bull in a China Shop off the 2016 album Where the Light Shines Through

I get by with what I got right here

Do what I can with what I got this year

Watching the time on the clock disappear

Fear is all I got left to fear

I got my enemies among these friends

You got means and baby I got plans

Give me the start and I can find these ends

Give me more time and I'll do it again, again, again

I wanna rock this block like a bull in a China shop

Give me more time and I'll do it again, again, again

I wanna rock this block like a bull in a China shop

Give me more time and I'll do it again, again, again

2017 Movie Ferdinand - Very loosely based on the 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand

Synopsis… From the creators of "Ice Age" and "Rio" comes the most love-a-bull family comedy of the year! Ferdinand (John Cena) is a giant bull with a big heart. After being mistaken for a dangerous beast and torn from his home, he rallies a misfit team of friends for the ultimate adventure to return to his family. Based on the classic children’s book, Ferdinand proves you can’t judge a bull by its cover! 

In one scene in the movie...

He quickly realizes the potential predicament he could end up in in a China Shop, and attempts to inch his way carefully to the exit. Nonetheless, he ends up getting his hoof stuck in a teapot, which leads to a disastrous domino effect and he finds himself stuck balancing ceramics on his head and between his teeth. 

Here’s a reference from the Twitter account of Saunders High School, a 9-12 grade Trades & Technical High School located in Yonkers, NY, posted October 22, 2021.

The video features a dance battle between two of the Assistant Principals. One of them was the clear winner. The text says… 

And finally, we come to a painting by Thomas March titled Bull in a China Shop. It is Acrylic on Paper and features a bull with the classic circle nose ring sitting cross-legged at a chair enjoying a glass of tea, surrounded by fine china on display. I love this work because we imagine a bull as acting with reckless abandon but the artist shows the exact opposite; a bull calmly enjoying a spot of tea in a refined setting. 

The original piece is not for sale, but you can order prints at Saatchi Art. We’ll link to it on patreon as well as in the show notes on the website, 

Wrap up...

It’s always difficult to pin down the origins of a phrase, but this one definitely seems to owe its popularity, and possibly its origin, to Charles Dibdin and his comic song. Which itself was made popular through performances and recordings from Joseph Grimaldi.

Bull in a china shop is one of many phrases that we just accept because it sounds like it makes sense. But to quote John Green, the truth resists simplicity. And as the Mythbusters showed, when not stirred to anger or fear, bulls can be quite graceful. I think the lesson here is we must imagine things complexly; whether it be a phrase, a person, or a bull sipping tea in a china shop.



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to make sure we see your comment is to post it on the Patreon page! 


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Back in September, we asked our Patrons about the Taco Bell Crispy Chicken Sandwich Taco. Is it a sandwich? Is it a taco? 

The results came in with 67% saying it was still a taco, regardless of what Taco Bell called it. While 33% said it was somehow both a taco AND a sandwich. No one was fooled into thinking it was only a sandwich. 

If you want to join our polls, head over to where Patrons at all levels can participate in our weekly silly polls that mean absolutely nothing and aren’t even scientifically valid. But they are fun to talk about in the thread!

Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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