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Steal one’s thunder

Q From Anon: Could you shed any light on the origins of to steal one’s thunder?

A There’s a rather splendid story about the origin of this most colourful phrase. We know about it because it was recounted by the eighteenth-century actor and playwright Colley Cibber, in his Lives of the Poets, and was also mentioned by Alexander Pope in his poem The Dunciad. The story goes that John Dennis, an actor-manager of the early part of the eighteenth century, had invented a machine to make stage thunder, which he employed in his own play, Appius and Virginia, performed at Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1709. Mr Dennis, whatever his inventive gifts, was a very bad playwright; the play was not a success and was soon taken off in favour of a production of Macbeth by another company. Dennis went to the opening night and was astonished to hear his thunder machine being used. He leapt to his feet and shouted, “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder but not my play!”. Like so many successful sayings, it has subsequently been refined and sharpened.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Jan. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 22 January 2000.