Tempest in a Teapot


I recently had occasion to use the phrase “tempest in a teapot”. (I have kids! Everything is a tempest in a teapot).

Anyway, being who I am, I of course wondered: When was the FirstMention of tempest in a teapot?.

I checked Wikipedia, and naturally enough, they have an entry:

The phrase is at least a century and a half old, as evidenced in the January 1838 edition of the defunct The United States Democratic Review, in an article regarding the Supreme Court. To quote: “This collegiate tempest in a teapot might serve for the lads of the University to moot; but, surely, was unworthy the solemn adjudication attempted for it.”
Wikipedia, in turn, refers to a wonderful and clever website. World Wide Words, as the source for the 1838 tempest-in-a-teapot citation.

Is there an earlier FirstMention? You betcha! It dates back to the August 30, 1820 Connecticut Gazette.

Connecticut Gazette

Wednesday, August 30, 1820

Anecdote of the late Lord Chancellor
Thurlow.–A person once came running
almost out of breath to the Lord Chan-
cellor, saying, “My Lord, I bring you ti-
dings of calamity to the nation, and I do
not know how far the direful effects of it
may spread to endanger the church and
state.”–“What is the matter, man?” said
the impatient Chancellor. “My Lord,”
continued the person, “a rebellion has
broken out”–“Where, where?” “In
the Isle of man.” “In the Isle of Man!”
repeated the vociferous Chancellor. “A
tempest in a tea-pot.”

Thurlow served as Lord Chancellor from 1783-1792, which means (assuming the story is true — it’s hard to tell with ‘anecdotes’) that the phrase dates back to late 1700’s, at least.

Interestingly, the 1820 article gives a decidedly English origin to the phrase, despite the usual assertion that the Brits prefer “storm in a teacup”, to the tempest variation.

A significant linguistic controversy on the origins of the phrase? Or a mere tempest in a teapot?

Well, whaddya know? As sometimes happens, an even earlier FirstMention has surfaced. Same story, different date. This one dates back to an 1815 publication, The Flowers of Wit, or A Choice Collection of Bon Mots. From Boston, no less.

The anecdote is identical to the version appearing later on the Connecticut Gazette, with the exception of one line at the end: “There is a similar idea in Athenaeus”.

I wonder what that means?