Did Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe flub a common English saying in his comment to USA Today?
Speaking on Carly Smithson, Kristy Lee Cook and other seeming show-biz veterans who have made it into this year’s show, the English-born Lythgoe dismisses concern over their experience as “a storm in a teacup.”
Sound odd to you? Then you’re probably American, as I am. In U.S. English, the expression is usually “a tempest in a teapot.” Both sayings describe a lot of fuss over a small and inconsequential thing: the Oxford English Dictionary defines the teacup version as “a great commotion in a circumscribed circle,” an image I particularly enjoy.
Is one preferable to the other? Not really: the OED dates the first incidence of both phrases to 1854, and both of them continue to recur. The British version is widely unknown in the United States, just as few British English speakers have heard of the more alliterative U.S. version. Word connoisseur Michael Quinion claims that “tempest in a teapot” may have come first, since he finds the phrase in a U.S. journal published in 1838.
The British Quinion, asked by a reader about the origins of the phrase, is initially nonplused by the American version. Michael, I can relate.