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March 13, 2017

I’ve always thought the expression ‘to steal someone’s thunder’ was rather picturesque, but had never stopped to wonder where it came from. Today I came across a tweet by Susie Dent, retweeted by Andy Pandini, which claimed it originated when a London theatrical company stole another theatrical company’s thunder machine in 1709. Isn’t that a great story? But is it true? I did a bit of googling and found confirmation – courtesy of an excellent website called The Phrase Finder, a sort of online Brewer’s Dictionary – that the story is indeed true; at least, it is well-attested. In 1709 a playwright called John Dennis put on a production of his own play, Appius and Virginia, at Drury Lane Theatre. The production featured a new kind of thunder machine, which is thought to have been a large metal bowl with lots of iron balls rolling around in it. But the play wasn’t well-received and closed after a short run. The next thing Dennis knows, another company is putting on a production of Macbeth in another theatre round the corner, and using his thunder machine! At which (this according to the literary scholar Joseph Spence) Dennis bitterly complained: “Damn them! They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder!”

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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  1. Diane permalink

    Excellent. I love learning about the origins of phrases.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Very slightly related: Before lighting in theatres was powerful enough lime was burned to provide illumination. Paul McCartney’s grandfather did this job so was also “in the limelight”.

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