bull » bowl

Chiefly in:   like a bowl in a china shop

Classification: English – idiom-related

Spotted in the wild:

  • And she’s described in reports as a bowl in a china shop, but somebody of unassailable high ethics, and also as a direct, directly reporting to the then chief financial officer. (CNN.com, rush transcript, January 16, 2002)
  • He [a dog] was kinda like a bowl in a china shop so to say. (If you knew how my mother is, & all of her nicknacks.) You would understand my last statement. He would knock everything over with his tail. (Midwest Exotics)
  • I begin to feel like a bowl in a china shop (which I guess must be pretty fragile). (guestbook entry)
  • On an intuition, Jennifer offered, “That’s why you and Mr Tate get along so well. He’s like an earthenware bowl in a china shop because he’s more real … more solid and down-to-earth.” (Ex Isle Forums, original fiction, February 19, 2005)
  • After numerous setbacks, I have finally made some progress with the BAR and CARB smog debacle. SInce I bought the car with Canadian title and license plates, this car has been like a bowl in a china shop with the BAR referee. (E28 Enthusiasts Forum, March 24, 2004)

Analyzed or reported by:

Paul Brians reported the quote from the CNN transcript to the Usenet forum `alt.usage.english`. There aren’t many clear examples of this reshaped idiom in the search engine archives, but it is mentioned as an “error of Engish” in a few places, for example in a long thread of April 2005 on the TiVo Community site, available via Google Cache.

The opinions on why _bowl_ instead of _bull_ vary. A Livejournal commenter admits to the eggcorn:

> I used to think “bull in a china shop” was “bowl in a china shop.”
> which made me wonder, wouldn’t a store that sells place settings actually WANT bowls in the shop?

To which the Livejournal’s owner replies:

> Ha! Even funnier was that when I read that, I was thinking “hmm, it WOULD be dangerous to bowl in a china shop”—but you meant bowl as a NOOOOUN.

From the few examples we have, _bowl_ can conjure up

- the notion of fragility and/or the semantic overlap with _china_
- the idea that a mundane bowl would feel out of place surrounded by delicate china
- the perilous activity of bowling in a china shop, a concept not unlike that of the original idiom

| link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2006/02/13 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by L. Flynn , 2006/03/24 at 9:43 pm

    The writer of “earthenare bowl” need not have known
    of the original, or have been in ignorance of its true
    form, to have made his own analogy. The use of “an”
    as opposed to some reference to a proverbial “the”
    bowl also supports this.

  2. 2

    Commentary by George Gibbard , 2006/08/10 at 8:33 am

    I am a native speaker of a dialect where the rhymes of ‘bull’ and ‘bowl’ have merged… since moving away from Michigan and becoming a linguistics grad student, I haven’t found anyone else who admits to a merger, including people from Michigan; my own home town of Ann Arbor is populated mostly by non-natives; so I have little sense of how common this is…I don’t recall ever really being confused by the expression, but I feel like I have been aware of the ambiguity for some time.
    In any event, assuming real homonymy, a bowl is much more likely to be found in a china shop than a bull, so much so that disambiguation might happen on a rapid subconscious basis; I don’t think we need to assume that people have considered logical reasons for preferring ‘bowl’.

  3. 3

    Commentary by Catherine Rogers , 2006/08/14 at 5:42 pm

    I wonder if this one first appeared in an urban setting, where people have little experience of bulls?

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