In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the interesting theatrical origins of a famous phrase
What does it mean to ‘steal one’s thunder’? The phrase is well-known, but its origins are less so. And to delve into the history of this now common phrase, we need to go into the theatre.
The world of the theatre has left its mark upon the English language in all sorts of ways. Some of these are rather surprising. We all know the wealth of phrases that Shakespeare’s plays have given the language, not to mention the dozens of words he’s credited with coining (although ‘coining’ may be overstating the case somewhat).
But even the mechanics of the theatre as a physical space used for performance has had an impact on the everyday, non-theatrical language we use. Thespis, the ancient Greek who often gets the credit for inventing the idea of the actor, gave us the word ‘thespian’; the word ‘background’ originally denoted the part of the stage farthest from the audience, before it was applied to things outside of the theatre; ‘scenario’ originally denoted the front of a classical theatre; and, perhaps most surprisingly, the word ‘explode’, now more commonly used about bombs than theatregoers, originated as a term for the sound made by audiences who clapped or booed a bad performer off the stage (the word is related to our word ‘applause’, which also denotes clapping, of course).
We still talk about being ‘in the limelight’, a legacy from the days when theatres were lit by a white light produced by heating lime in an oxyhydrogen flame. This light was shone on the actors, so they were literally ‘in the limelight’.
Which brings us to ‘steal one’s thunder’ and the figurative meaning of this phrase. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows: ‘Figurative phrase to steal (someone’s) thunder: to use the ideas, policies, etc., devised by another person, political party, etc., for one’s own advantage or to anticipate their use by the originator.’
Note here that the word ‘thunder’ is not invested with any stormy or tempestuous property: ‘thunder’, indeed, seems semantically by-the-by so far as the phrase’s meaning is concerned. In some alternate universe, people may well talk in the same figurative way about someone else stealing their apricots or half-inching their tree-sap or any number of apparently arbitrary metaphors.
In this connection, ‘to steal one’s thunder’ is a bit like another common phrase with a literary origin, ‘the emperor’s new clothes’: just as the latter phrase implies that novelty is the thing being dismissed when in fact this is completely beside the point (the point being the lack of substance, or indeed existence, rather than the newness of the clothes), so ‘steal my thunder’ suggests that clamour, uproar, energy, furore, or anger are somehow key to its meaning. And they’re not.
So where does this phrase originate? The idiom comes from the dramatist John Dennis (1658-1734), who created an innovative thunder machine for his 1709 play Appius and Virginia. The play was a flop, and quickly withdrawn. A performance of that old stalwart, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was put on and the theatre company used Dennis’s thunder techniques without his permission. As Robert Shiels and Theophilus Cibber wrote in The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland:
Mr. Dennis happened once to go to the play, when a tragedy was acted, in which the machinery of thunder was introduced, a new artificial method of producing which he had formerly communicated to the managers. Incensed by this circumstance, he cried out in a transport of resentment, ‘That is my thunder by G—d; the villains will play my thunder, but not my plays.’
This became ‘steal my thunder’ and an idiom was born.
Dennis should be remembered for more than coining this phrase. Sixteen years before his thunderously underwhelming play was staged, he had written a letter (published in Miscellanies) which effectively originated the concept of the Sublime, which would later be developed by Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century. Dennis wrote of the ‘Pleasures’ of seeing the ‘Alpes’, and how these pleasures were ‘mingled with horrours, and sometimes almost with despair’. Over a century before Percy Shelley praised the Sublime in his great piece of mountain-writing, ‘Mont Blanc’, Dennis was laying the groundwork for the concept. But we shouldn’t accuse Shelley of stealing Dennis’s thunder.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.