What Does Like a Bull in a China Shop Mean?

As Awkward As A Bull in A China Shop Meaning

Definition: Very awkward, clumsy, or reckless.

Most often, this idiom is used to describe a person who behaves inappropriately in a delicate situation.

Imagine if there truly were a bull in a shop filled with delicate china. The bull wouldn’t realize it had to be careful, and it would accidentally knock over and break the china. This mental image of careless disregard for fragile items is helpful in understanding how the idiom is used.

Origin of As Awkward As A Bull In A China Shop

like a bull in a china shop meaningThe 1812 London Review and Literary Journal is the first source to have a written record of the idiom, which can be found in the excerpt below.

The business is whimsical and amusing; the changes are numerous, and the tricks, though highly ludicrous, are for the most part original; — at least, we do not remember to have met with anything like them before. The extraordinary spectacle of a Bull in a China Shop afforded great entertainment; and an artificial elephant introduced, was welcomed with loud plaudits.

Although this is the first time the expression appears in an English text, it should be noted that similar idioms exist in other languages, although most feature an elephant in a glassware shop.

Examples of As Awkward As A Bull In A China Shop

meaning of bull in a china shopAnother form this idiom often takes is “like a bull in a china shop.” In the example below, this usage can be seen when two coworkers discuss why their department head should not attend a certain meeting.

In this case, the idiom refers to the personality of the woman discussed, not her physical clumsiness.

Deanna: Did you hear that Cecelia is supposed to attend that big meeting with all the donors?

Emily: Oh no! Those donors are so proper and refined. She has no manners at all. She’ll only end up insulting them.

Deanna: I know. She’s like a bull in a china shop. There’s no way this won’t be a disaster.

In the second example, a dance teacher uses the idiom to describe the physical awkwardness of her student, rather than his personality.

Teacher: Rogelio, you’re doing the move wrong again. If you’re not careful you’re going to fall. You’re throwing all the other dancers off rhythm.

Student: I’m sorry, let me try again.

Teacher: There’s no use. You’re like a bull in a china shop. Let’s take a break and try again later.

More Examples

  • “Nothing is more important to candidates than the trust they build with voters. And nothing is more fragile. Law enforcement has an unrivaled ability to shatter that trust. Accordingly, it should not behave like a bull in a china shop.” –The Washington Post
  • Thompson said Griffin “plays pretty physical and flops a little bit.” “He flares his arm around so you know you might catch a random elbow or something that doesn’t, you know, rub off too well on guys,” Thompson said on “The Wheelhouse” program on KGMZ (95.7) radio in San Francisco. “He’s kind of like a bull in a china shop, kind of out of control sometimes. And then you do just see him flop sometimes, like how can a guy that big and strong flop that much? I can see how that gets under people’s skin and be frustrating to play against.” –LA Times

Summary

As awkward as a bull in a china shop is an idiom that is used to describe people who, whether intentionally or unintentionally, do not act cautiously (in their manner) or gracefully (with their physical presence) in situations where they should.