From where did ‘steal one’s thunder’ originate?

We investigate the origin behind the idiom ‘steal one’s thunder’.

portrait of english dramatist john dennis

Every time I tell you about something I’m going to do, you go ahead and do it first. Why do you continue to steal my thunder?

Ever used this particular phrase? We all know what it means but how did it originate?

While it’s quite rare for etymologists to be able to pinpoint the exact origin of a phrase, etymologists are fairly confident about the beginnings of this idiom.

It was 1704 in London, when a fellow by the name of John Dennis created a sound effect for thunder that he used in his own theatre production Appius and Virginia, which was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre. It isn’t known exactly how Dennis made the sound effect (though some believe it may have been created using metal balls rolling around inside a wooden bowl).

Appius and Virginia wasn’t the great success that Dennis would have liked, and when sales fell, so too did the curtain, and the production closed early.

However, Dennis’ sound effect became quite popular. The next play shown in the theatre was Macbeth, of which Dennis was an audience member. When the familiar sound of his thunder erupted during the performance, Dennis was reported to have jumped up and cried: “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder but not my play.”

And that’s how this lively phrase was coined.


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    4th Mar 2016
    Yours is probably the correct version but I have heard an alternative, also theatrical in origin. Gods appearing on stage were sometimes presaged by thunder sound effects. Another actor jumping his cue would be said to steal the other's thunder.

    4th Mar 2016
    The above tale is untrue. The real story took place in 1893 in a small town in Iowa called Clearview. A man by the name of Cyrus Clements had just returned home from grocery shopping when his neighbor of dubious reputation, Rufus Marner, stopped in for a chat. A while after Rufus left Cyrus noticed a can of baked beans missing from his recent shopping purchases which he had left on the table. Suspecting his light-fingered neighbour he went next door, but Rufus was not there. Knowing Rufus' second home was the pub Cyrus found him there standing at the bar, by himself, drinking, and making abhorrent sounds which produced acrid and unpleasant odours. Being discreet, Cyrus then exclaimed the above phrase rather than name the actual, and more embarrassing for Rufus, goods he had purloined.
    4th Mar 2016

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