Editor at Large

Mixing Metaphors on American Idol

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.

One reply on “Mixing Metaphors on American Idol”

Rex Harrisonsays:

Tempest is a low frequency car crash of syllables from Old French used often to refer to Shakespeare’s last play but rarely to refer to a weather event (“Look outside Mummy! It is blowing a tempest!”). Storm is a trusted pithy Anglo-Saxon workhorse.

A weather event in a teacup is imageable. The familiar sight of perturbed liquids threatening to spill over the side etc. One can barely even picture the inside of teapots let alone conjure a storm there.

A considerable price to pay for a little alliteration I would’ve thought.

Some food for thought…Or should that be “Some gastronomy for genuflection”?

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