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 storm in a teacup (British English), is an idiom meaning a small event that has been exaggerated out of proportion. There are also lesser known or earlier variants, such as tempest in a teacup, 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]

Other languages[edit]

A similar phrase exists in numerous other languages:

  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Yiddish: 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.