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A storm in a teacup

“A storm in a teacup,” also sometimes said as a “tempest in a teacup,” is an English idiom. It refers to an event that’s been exaggerated out of proportion with its truth. 

The phrase is not as common as it used to be in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it is still used today. It is thought to have originated sometime in the early 1st century BC and “a storm in a teacup” can be found in the writings of Cicero. 

A storm in a teacup meaning

Meaning of “A storm in a teacup” 

The idiom “a storm in a teacup,” or “a tempest in a teacup,” as is more common in American English, refers to an event that’s been exaggerated.

It has been blown out of proportion with reality. The phrase is commonly used when someone wants to describe something that drew way too much focus and took more energy than it should’ve. For example, if someone overreacts to a small event, they might be or cause a “storm in a teapot.” The “storm” is a metaphor for the chaotic and dramatic action, and the “teapot” is the broader situation that doesn’t warrant the storm. 

Origins of “A storm in a teacup” 

The phrase “a storm in a teacup” is thought to have originated, in its first form, around the time of Cicero’s De Legibus. He wrote, “Excitabat enim fluctus in simpulo ut dicitur Gratidius,” in English this reads:

For Gratidius raised a tempest in a ladle, as the saying is. 

It’s clear that even at this time, in the first century BC, this phrase was commonly used. He references it as “the saying,” suggesting that he knew it and others were already aware of it before he used it in this piece. It was later used in examples in the 3rd century with the use of the words “tempest” and “saucepan.” In print, it also appeared in 1815 when then Lord Chancellor Thurlow was quoted saying that an uprising on the Isle of Man was a “tempest in a teapot.” 

As is common with these phrases, they tend to evolve over time. They might start out with different words arranged in a different order and then become solidified as they’re used in everyday speech. The British English version, “a storm in a teacup,’ was first recorded in 1838 in Catherine Sinclair’s Modern Accomplishments. There are numerous other versions of this phrase in different languages. They involve glasses of water, ladles, teacups, and more. 

When to Use the Idiom

It’s possible to use “a storm in a teacup” in a number of different situations. It could be used among friends, family members, or even close colleagues. It’s a lesser-known idiom than some of the more popular examples (see below), but it can still be quite effective. Speakers should keep in mind that because of the fact that it has largely fallen out of use, there are some people who aren’t going to understand what it’s referring to. Despite this, with context, it’s still quite easy to put into practice. 

Like most idioms and proverbs, this one is likely not appropriate for more academic or serious conversations. If one is in a business meeting, presenting a paper, or pitching a plan of some sort, it’s likely going to come across as unprofessional if used. 

Example Sentences

  • Don’t start causing a storm in a teacup. 
  • They went crazy, totally created a storm in a teacup over absolutely nothing. 
  • After I left, apparently a storm in a teacup broke out. 
  • Every time she comes here she causes a storm in a teacup. 

Why Do Writers Use “A storm in a teacup?” 

Writers use “a storm in a teacup” in the same way and for the same reasons that it’s used in everyday conversations. As noted above, this phrase is less commonly used than some more popular idioms. Its meaning is likely going to be allusive to those who have never heard it before. Especially if, when it’s used, the context does not reveal its meaning. Many idioms are dependent on a writer’s or speaker’s ability to have them make sense within the structure of their speech. 

This phrase might be used in a dialogue between two characters, one of whom is blaming the other for throwing a fit over something that doesn’t matter. One might tell the other that they’ve caused a “storm in a teacup” or that they blew things out of proportion. In another situation, a narrator might comment on how a “storm in a teacup” is occurring and then pass judgment on how the events of the scene came to pass. 


Why do people use “a storm in a teacup?”

People use “a storm in a teacup” when they want to emphasize how something has been blown out of proportion. The phrase is less commonly used today than it used to be, but it can still be quite effective. 

Is it okay to use “a storm in a teacup?” 

ends, family members, and close colleagues. It’s likely that one’s superior at work or peers in an academic setting won’t find its use particularly professional. 

Where did the saying “a storm in a teacup” come from? 

The saying has an unclear origin, but it dates back at least to the first century BC. It was used in the works of Cicero. As with most of these older sayings, it’s unknown who first used it or where the inspiration for the phrase came from. 

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