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What Does "Bring the House down" Mean?

By Rachael Cullins
Updated Feb 01, 2024
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The expression “bring the house down” is common in both the United States and the United Kingdom. It is a popular idiom that refers to tremendous praise or favor from an audience and originates from the response of live audiences at playhouses and theaters. It's a facetious phrase that signifies applause or cheering so thunderous that it could, in theory, make the playhouse collapse.

An idiom is any phrase with a figurative meaning that differs from the literal meaning of the words used in the idiom. In the case of “bring the house down,” the idiom does not refer to the actual destruction or collapse of a structure. The phrase is classified as an opaque idiom, meaning its literal translation gives little insight into the idiomatic function of the phrase. A non-native speaker, for example, might have a difficult time deciphering the meaning.

In addition to opaque idioms such as this phrase, there are also transparent idioms. These idioms more directly reflect their literal meanings. For example, the idiom “a slap on the wrist” is transparent, as both the literal and figurative meanings describe a form of punishment.

“Bring the house down” gained popularity as an idiom before the advent of television or any other electronic forms of entertainment. A theater is often known as a “house,” with the first enclosed theaters built in England in the 1500s. It is not certain when this idiom originated, but it may have been during this time frame as theaters were built with simple, thatched roofs and were relatively fragile structures.

Since its inception, this phrase has developed an expanded meaning. It is now used to refer to any enthusiastic praise, in or out of a theater. It is used in non-theater contexts, such as when an athlete makes a key play that leads to big cheers from a crowd. Some use the phrase in a non-colloquial sense to indicate the actual collapse of a house, such as from a natural disaster.

The popularity of the idiom has led to its use in popular media and entertainment contexts. In 2003, a movie entitled “Bringing Down the House” was released, starring American actors Steve Martin and Queen Latifah. Latifah portrays a woman, fresh from jail, who barges into Martin’s character’s life and causes trouble. The movie’s title is a play on “bring the house down,” signifying the disruptions caused by Latifah’s character.

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Discussion Comments

By anon969249 — On Sep 08, 2014

In my theater days in college, I was taught that the phrase originated from the fact that the star performance, or the highlight of the show, generally preceded the lowering of the curtains on the stage. In other words, the finale, or ending. Thus, the term was originated to signify a scene or a performance that "brought down the house (curtains)", or closed the show for the evening.

By Perdido — On Jul 17, 2012

@Kristee – I am a member of a dance team, and we have felt that amazing experience of bringing the house down before. You are right. There is nothing else quite like it.

We were very good, until two of our members broke their legs. Our popular routine relied on the full participation of all the members, so we could not perform without them.

We eventually had to replace them, but we just could not find that magic that we had with our former group. We did get applause, but we never brought the house down again. It is a sad feeling to know that those days are over.

By Kristee — On Jul 17, 2012

I used to be the lead singer for a band, and it was my desire to bring down the house. I had a fear of silence after a performance, but that rarely happened.

I had an awesome group of musicians, and I could sing really well. Often, we did bring the house down, and that made me so happy. There is nothing quite so uplifting to a musician's heart as hearing the din of applause combined with loud cheers.

I no longer sing publicly, and I really miss the feeling I got when we brought the house down. Sometimes, life seems a little emptier without it. I think that all musicians know what I'm talking about, if they have ever experienced it.

By shell4life — On Jul 17, 2012

I would not have coined this phrase to mean something positive. To me, bringing the house down evokes terrible images of people being trapped under rubble.

I have claustrophobia, so any reference to buildings coming down terrifies me. I have panic attacks when I see footage on the news of collapsed buildings with people trapped inside.

This is just one of my personality quirks. I'm sure the phrase doesn't bother most people. We all have our issues, though, and mine is all references to falling buildings, dynamite, or earthquakes.

Why can't people just say, “He really wowed the crowd!” or, “He got a standing ovation!” instead of saying something colorful? It means the same thing.

By giddion — On Jul 16, 2012

My husband works on a demolition crew, so when he uses this idiom, he really means they are about to bring the house down. It always strikes me as odd to hear him say this, and I always giggle a little.

I grew up watching a lot of live musical performances, as well as stand-up comedy on television, so to me, bringing the house down means having an overwhelmingly positive response from the crowd. I don't think I will ever be able to separate what my husband does from this concept of the phrase.

Sometimes, I hear him talking on the phone to the guy he carpools with, and I will overhear him say, “Well, are you ready to bring the house down?” I think that he is trying to bring a little bit of humor into it with a double meaning, even if he never admits it.

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