A storm in a teacup
This phrase is used to denote a minor incident which is blown out of all proportions.
Although today we regularly position the storm in a teacup, it seems that this phrase has a long history and various receptacles over time have been the location of the storm.
The great Roman orator and writer, Cicero, introduced a variant of the phrase in his de Legibus (52 BCE). Tully wrote, “excitabat fluctus in simpulo”, which translates as “he was stirring up billows in a ladle”.
The phrase first finds its way into English print in a letter written by the Duke of Ormond to the Earl of Arlington in 1678. The Duke wrote, “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”, establishing the linkage between a storm and something used in the process of preparing a social beverage.
By 1830 the storm had moved and was now located in a wash basin. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1830 attributes this variant to Lord Thurlow who, as well as being the nephew of the first Lord Thurlow who was Lord Chancellor in 1778, had a reputation as a minor poet. The Magazine records, “Each campaign, compared with those of Europe, has been only, in Lord Thurlow’s phrase, a storm in a wash-hand basin.”
The first use of the phrase involving a teacup is attributed to the Scottish authoress, Catherine Sinclair (1800 – 1864) who as well as being a do-gooder in Edinburgh, wrote a number of books including some children’s books and a description of modern fashionable life, Modern Accomplishments or the march of the intellect. It was the latter book, published in 1838, which contained the sentence, “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”. Catherine was also responsible for attributing the authorship to the Waverley novels, previously published anonymously, to Walter Scott.
In America the phrase is more commonly a tempest in a teapot, although the origins of this particular variant seem to have been Scottish. Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine of 1825 includes a discussion of the relative merits of a couple of Scottish poets and suggest that one of the poet’s, Tom Campbell’s, imagery of raging storms wasn’t particularly well received. “What is the ‘tempest raging o’er the realms of ice’? A tempest in a teapot!”
Interestingly, the phrase, or at least a variant, can be found in other European languages. In the Netherlands it is a storm in a glass of water and in Hungary a tempest in a potty!
So now we know!