12

I ran across the expression "as useful as a chocolate teapot" (or sometimes a fireguard) which is apparently used to denote the utter uselessness of something. It received some coverage on Language Log back in 2004. Where/how did the expression originate?

9

Eric Partridge and Paul Beale's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th edition, 1984, s.v. much use as) gives an example of "chocolate teapot" from the Guardian, January 1979.

I haven't found any earlier examples, and don't know where it came about; though there are a few references to it on lists of Irish slang, I don't personally associate it with Irish English. The logic is presumably that if you used a chocolate teapot then it would melt, though research shows that this is not always true!

2
  • Thank you. A less successful experiment can be found here :) – coleopterist Feb 22 '13 at 15:55
  • 1
    I wouldn't particularly associate it with Irish use, either. About the only one of the very many "useless as a ..." joking similes like this that I'd consider likely to be particularly Irish is the less surreal "useless as tits on a bull". Still, there's no reason that that needn't have arisen elsewhere, and no reason why the chocolate teapot need not indeed be Irish; either assertion would need some demonstrating. – Jon Hanna Feb 22 '13 at 16:04
7

The expression was used in The Guardian of 17th July 1978 in an article titled "Barnsley bashers face the chop", written by Michael Parkin:

Tourists that go to home games of Barnsley Town will hear some of the finest football wit and repartee in the land. Players are accused of being "as nimble as a stone trough" or "as much use as a chocolate teapot."

The phrase is repeated in The Guardian of 13th February 1980 in "Barnsley go down and the fans love it", again by Parkin:

What the visit will do for the public relations on the terraces at the Oakwell ground has yet to be seen. Barnsley's supporters are notoriously critical and much given to witty judgments.

A visit down the pit will not save a dawdling player form the kind of remark in which the Oakwell crowd specialises: "That's as much use as a chocolate teapot."


A 1981 Google Books snippet also points to the terraces as origin for this ironic simile. Desmond Morris's The Soccer Tribe (1981) describes 'The Jokers':

If the referee gives the opponents a penalty, he yells, 'When they circumcised you they threw away the wrong part.' If a player is not trying hard enough, he bellows, 'You are as much use as a chocolate teapot.'

Wikipedia confirms the date and says:

In 1978 Desmond was elected Vice-Chairman of the Oxford United Football Club. Interesting to note, later in 1981 Morris publishes 'The Soccer Tribe,' analysis regarding the world of professional football, or rather soccer, to Canadians and Americans.

4

'Michael Parkin' as referred to in Hugo's answer is the British journalist, author and chat show host Michael Parkinson. 'Chocolate teapot' features in his book Football Daft, published 1968.
In that book, Parkinson, famously from the Yorkshire town of Barnsley, describes Tottenham Hotspur coming to play Barnsley FC at the latter's Oakwell ground, a game at which Spurs and England fullback Alf Ramsey was tormented by a tricky winger playing for Barnsley. Parkinson says that a wag in the crowd at one point shouted "Ramsey th'art about as much use as a chocolate teapot!" and further posits (for comedic value) that this incident was the root cause of Ramsey's later aversion to wingers, as seen by his team of 'wingless wonders' that won the World Cup for England in 1966. The fact that he used the phrase later in other contexts suggests to me that it was of his own invention.

3

I found this in a Google Books snippet (so no further context) from The Accountant for 1981:

... is managing director of a hardware firm, singing IF's praises — in the hope, no doubt, that others in the profession will see the advantages and not consider, as does the Cleese-consultant, that 'it is about as much use as a chocolate teapot'.

This suggests that the phrase may come from one of the many humorous business training videos which Cleese's company Video Arts produced in the 1970s.

3

A Hathi Trust database search for "chocolate teapot" turns up a (nonviewable) match from what it identifies a "The New dawn. ser.2 v.026 yr.1972." A followup search in Google Books turns up the following snippet view from The New Dawn (1972) [combined snippets]:

MELTING POINT

Staff report: " About as much use as a chocolate teapot."

I couldn't confirm the date of this publication, but Google Books and Hathi Trust agree that it is 1972.

This and other instances of chocolate teapot discussed in answers to this question involve the expression chocolate teapot in the sense of "teapot made of chocolate." But it bears noting that an earlier meaning of chocolate teapot seems to have been either "chocolate-colored teapot" or "teapot for making hot chocolate." From William Chaffers & Frederick Litchfield, Marks and Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain,thirteenth edition (1912):

STAFFORDSHIRE. The following are marks of potters not hitherto mentioned who are believed to have worked in Staffordshire. The Editor has been unable to obtain any further information about them except the references given below.

...

Uncertain. The mark impressed on a chocolate teapot with twisted reed handle, similar to Wedgwood ware; in the possession of Mr. T. Hughes, Chester.

Whichever meaning Chaffers & Litchfield had in mind for the phrase chocolate teapot, it seems certain that this particular vessel was neither useless nor edible nor particularly easy to melt.

3
  • "chocolate-colored teapot" or "teapot for making hot chocolate." This is a bit of a red-herring. Given that Chaffer was an authority on antiques and their markings, (and he was English), he would not have used "chocolate" to mean other than "dark brown". A chocolate pot was tall and narrow; distinct from a teapot. – Greybeard Sep 23 '20 at 19:44
  • @Greybeard: You're right. The book frequently uses chocolate as a color, and it uses the term chocolate pot, not chocolate teapot, to refer to a receptacle for preparing chocolate for drinking. – Sven Yargs Sep 23 '20 at 20:28
  • 1
    Your 1912 find appears at least as early as the 3rd edition, 1872. – JEL Sep 26 '20 at 4:59
1

The phrase and variants are reported by OED:

colloquial. as useful (also successful, etc.) as a chocolate teapot (also fireplace, etc.) and variants: not useful, successful, etc., at all. Hence in similar phrases.

The earliest attestation of the phrase given by OED is from 1973; I have, however, confirmed that a variant of the phrase appeared in print as early as 1968, as noted by an earlier answer given here, where the use of the phrase is attributed to a screaming football fan.

The idea behind the phrase had at least some currency earlier, as attested by this excerpt from an article titled "Our Sandman Could Do With a Wagon", from the (paywalled) Lancashire Evening Post of Saturday 02 April 1955 (emphasis mine):

This little mouse who was a naughty little mouse found some matches and lit a fire in the chocolate fireplace. And the walls all started to melt and…

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.