Il est comme un éléphant dans un magasin de porcelaine.
ee lay kuh muh nay-lay-fah dah zuh maa-gaa-zaad por-SLENN. Click below to hear this.
He’s like a bull in a china shop.
Sounds simple and straightforward, right? A bull in English, un éléphant in French, both large animals that don’t much care about tiptoeing between the counters piled with dainty cups and saucers. I’m already tallying up the damage, aren’t you?
As evocative as the animal images are, from a linguistic point of view, it’s the shop that’s more interesting, or more properly, what the shop sells. The word porcelaine comes from an Italian word for a sow (a female pig, nothing to do with sowing seed), but it also refers to a mollusk whose shell is lined with a lovely, translucent substance. What role the pig plays in all this, I can’t imagine. It’s the mollusk that matters, because the dainty decorative tableware we are familiar with today was named for that shimmery shell lining.
So why do we call porcelain “china” in English? Because China, among other places, is known for its propduction of fine porcelain. In French, that’s de la porcelaine de Chine. There’s also de la porcelaine de Sèvres, de la porcelaine de Limoges, and many others.
But take my advice. Don’t let the pig into the magasin (store) either. I’ve seen a pig trying to tell the farmer which way to go, and the pig was winning. The porcelaine just isn’t safe. It’s not even safe around me.