Steal Your Thunder

Without knowing you, I can still safely guess that you have stolen something at one point in your life.

Chances are you have never pulled off a heist like the guys from Ocean’s Eleven. And maybe you have never even pilfered a pen from a hotel.

But I bet I know what you have stolen…

Thunder.

Okay, maybe you have never stolen actual thunder (that’s impossible right?), to do that you would have to be some distant relative to Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief.

The phrase steal somebody’s thunder means “to do something that takes attention away from what someone else has done.”

We all have done that at some point in our lives. Maybe it was on purpose or maybe it was on accident.

As far as I can tell, there are no criminal charges for stealing ones thunder. And I don’t think cases like this are even investigated. I can’t remember Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever writing about Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Stolen Thunder.

Thunder seems like an odd and difficult thing to steal. Where did that term come from? That is what I want to know on today’s Wonder Why Wednesday.

Origin of the phrase “steal one’s thunder”:

According to phrases.org.uk, thunder thievery dates back to the early 1700’s.

In 1704, literary critic John Dennis produced a play titled Appius and Virginia for the Drury Lane Theatre in London. For this play he invented a new method of creating the sound of thunder which used rolling metal balls down troughs, grinding lead shot in bowls and shaking sheets of thin metal. Unfortunately the play was not well received and was cancelled shortly into its run.

Sometime later, Dennis was attending a production of Macbeth at the Drury Lane Theatre when he heard a familiar noise. His thunder was still being used by the theatre and Dennis was not happy to hear this.

The account of his response was recorded by the literary scholar Joseph Spence and later quoted in W. S. Walsh’s Literary Curiosities, 1893:

“Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”

So there we have it. The first instance of stolen thunder occurred when someone actually stole the sound of thunder. It is too bad that Dennis’ play was not successful, but he did create a phrase that is still used over 300 years later. Not a bad consolation prize.

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