Tempest in a teapot

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Carl Guttenberg's 1778 Tea-Tax Tempest, with exploding teapot

Tempest in a teapot (American English), or also phrased as storm in a teacup (British English), or tempest in a teacup is an idiom meaning a small event that has been exaggerated out of proportion. There are also lesser known or earlier variants, such as storm in a cream bowl, tempest in a glass of water, storm in a wash-hand basin,[1] and storm in a glass of water.


Cicero, in the first century BC, in his De Legibus, used a similar phrase in Latin, possibly the precursor to the modern expressions, Excitabat enim fluctus in simpulo ut dicitur Gratidius, translated: "For Gratidius raised a tempest in a ladle, as the saying is".[2] Then in the early third century AD, Athenaeus, in the Deipnosophistae, has Dorion ridiculing the description of a tempest in the Nautilus of Timotheus by saying that he had seen a more formidable storm in a boiling saucepan.[3] The phrase also appeared in its French form une tempête dans un verre d'eau ('a tempest in a glass of water'), to refer to the popular uprising in the Republic of Geneva near the end of the eighteenth century.[4]

One of the earliest occurrences in print of the modern version is in 1815, where Britain's Lord Chancellor Thurlow, sometime during his tenure of 1783–1792, is quoted as referring to a popular uprising on the Isle of Man as a "tempest in a teapot".[5] Also Lord North, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is credited for popularizing this phrase as characterizing the outbreak of American colonists against the tax on tea.[6] This sentiment was then satirized in Carl Guttenberg's 1778 engraving of the Tea-Tax Tempest (shown above right), where Father Time flashes a magic lantern picture of an exploding teapot to America on the left and Britannia on the right, with British and American forces advancing towards the teapot. Just a little later, in 1825, in the Scottish journal Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, a critical review of poets Hogg and Campbell also included the phrase "tempest in a teapot".[7]

The first recorded instance of the British English version, "storm in teacup", occurs in Catherine Sinclair's Modern Accomplishments in 1838.[8][9] There are several instances though of earlier British use of the similar phrase "storm in a wash-hand basin".[10]

In 2008, Fall Out Boy used the phrase "Tempest in a Teacup" as lyrics in their song 'Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown on a Bad Bet'

Other languages[edit]

A similar phrase exists in numerous other languages:

  • Persian: از کاه کوه ساختن az kah kouh sakhtan ('a storm in a cup')
  • Arabic: زوبعة في فنجان zawba'a fi finjan ('a storm in a cup')
  • Bengali: চায়ের কাপে ঝড় cha-er cup-e jhor ('storm in a teacup')
  • Bulgarian: Буря в чаша вода burya v chasha voda ('storm in a glass of water')
  • Chinese: 茶杯裡的風波、茶壺裡的風暴 ('winds and waves in a teacup; storm in a teapot')
  • Czech: bouře ve sklenici vody ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • Danish: en storm i et glas vand ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • Dutch: een storm in een glas water ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • Esperanto: granda frakaso en malgranda glaso ('a large storm in a small glass')
  • Estonian: torm veeklaasis ('storm in a glass of water')
  • Filipino: bagyo sa baso ('typhoon in a teacup')
  • Finnish: myrsky vesilasissa ('storm in a glass of water')
  • French: une tempête dans un verre d'eau ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • German: Sturm im Wasserglas ('storm in a glass of water')
  • Hebrew: סערה בכוס תה se'arah bekos teh ('storm in a teacup')
  • Hindi: चाय की प्याली में तूफ़ान ('storm in a teacup')
  • Hungarian: vihar egy pohár vízben ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • Icelandic: stormur í vatnsglasi ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • Italian: una tempesta in un bicchiere d'acqua ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • Japanese: コップの中の嵐 koppu no naka no arashi ('a storm in a glass')
  • Korean: 찻잔속의 태풍 chat jan sokui taepung ('a typhoon in a teacup')
  • Latin: excitare fluctus in simpulo ('to stir up waves in a ladle')
  • Latvian: vētra ūdens glāzē ('storm in a glass of water')
  • Lithuanian: audra stiklinėje ('storm in a glass')
  • Malayalam: ചായക്കോപ്പയിലെ കൊടുങ്കാറ്റ് chaya koppayile kodunkattu ('storm in a tea cup')
  • Norwegian: storm i et vannglass (Bokmål)/storm i eit vassglas (Nynorsk) ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • Polish: burza w szklance wody ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • Portuguese: tempestade em copo d'água/uma tempestade num copo d'água ('storm in a glass of water/a tempest in a glass of water')
  • Romanian: furtună într-un pahar cu apă ('storm in a glass of water')
  • Russian: Буря в стакане воды burya v stakane vody ('storm in a glass of water')
  • Serbian: Бура у чаши воде bura u čaši vode ('storm in a glass of water')
  • Spanish: una tormenta en un vaso de agua ('a storm in a glass of water')
  • Swedish: storm i ett vattenglas ('storm in a glass of water')
  • Turkish: bir kaşık suda fırtına ('storm in a spoon of water')
  • Telugu: tea kappu lo thufaanu ('storm in a tea cup')
  • Tamil: தேநீர் கோப்பையில் புயல் ('storm in a tea cup')
  • Ukrainian: Буря в склянці води buria v sklyantsi vody ('a tempest in a glass of water')
  • Urdu: چائے کی پیالی میں طوفان chaye ki pyali main toofan ('storm in a teacup')
  • Yiddish: אַ שטורעם אין אַ גלאָז וואַסער a shturem in a gloz vaser ('a storm in a glass of water'), or אַ בורע אין אַ לעפֿל וואַסער a bure in a lefl vaser ('a tempest in a spoon of water')

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Christine Ammer, The American Heritage dictionary of idioms, p. 647, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997 ISBN 0-395-72774-X, 9780395727744
  2. ^ Reddall, Henry Frederic (1892). Fact, fancy, and fable: a new handbook for ready reference on subjects commonly omitted from cyclopaedias. A.C McClurg. p. 490.
  3. ^ Bartlett, John (1891). Familiar quotations: a collection of passages, phrases, and proverbs traced to their sources in ancient and modern literature. Little, Brown, and company. p. 767.
  4. ^ "Whence the phrase "a tempest in a teapot"?". Lippincott's Monthly Magazine: A Popular Journal of General Literature. 43. March 1889.
  5. ^ Kett, Henry (1814). The flowers of wit, or, A choice collection of bon mots, both antient and modern, with biographical and critical remarks, Volume 2. Lackington, Allen, and co. p. 67.
  6. ^ "A Tempest in a Teapot". Hartford Herald: 8. July 10, 1907.
  7. ^ Blackwood, William (1825). "Scotch Poets, Hogg and Campbell". Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. 17: 112.
  8. ^ "Tempest in a teapot". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 7 January 2012.
  9. ^ Sinclair, Catherine (1836). Modern accomplishments ; or, The march of intellect. Waugh and Innes. p. 204. storm in a teacup.
  10. ^ "Storm in a wash-hand basin (pre-1938)". Google Books search. Retrieved 7 January 2012.