‘Mountain Out Of a Molehill’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on August 14, 2023

Did someone say that you were making a 'mountain out of a molehill,' and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

When someone makes a ‘mountain out of a molehill,’ it means they are overreacting to something fairly minor. Basically, it means to make a bigger deal about a situation than is really necessary or appropriate.

What Does 'Mountain Out of a Molehill' Mean?

To make a ‘mountain out of a molehill’ means to make a bigger deal about something than is warranted. Another way to put it would be to say that one is making a ‘mountain out of a mole hill’ if they are over-reactive and histrionic in response to something that is ultimately very minor.

  • A metaphor for the common behavior of exaggerating the severity of a situation, this phrase is most often used when a person is viewing an adverse situation in a way that is disproportionate to its reality.

This phrase has been around for hundreds of years in recognition of a phenomenon that is also acknowledged in the world of cognitive psychology. When a person makes a bigger deal out of something than is reasonable, it’s known as magnification or overreacting.

Psychologists have tested just how familiar the public is with a variety of phrases. According to one study, the expression ‘make a mountain out of a mole hill’ was found to rank very highly among the 203 common sayings that were used in the research.

Interestingly, there is an old fable that illustrates the opposite meaning that is about a mountain that gives birth to a mouse. The story tells the tale of what happens when someone expects more out of something than actually results.

Where Does 'Mountain Out of a Molehill' Come From?

The first recorded use of this phrase dates all the way back to 1548. At that point, the word mole was only in existence for less than two hundred years. The word mole first appeared towards the end of the 14th century, and the word molehill dates back to the early 15th century.

We find the idiom in Nicholas Udall's translation of The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus vpon the newe testamente in the following passage:

"The Sophistes of Grece coulde through their copiousness make an Elephant of a flye, and a mountaine of a mollehill." 

In this bit, we also see the comparison of an Elephant and a fly. This dates back to a Latin proverb that was recorded by Erasmus. It is thought that Udall added the ‘mountain out of a molehill’ metaphor himself, and it caught on from there. Scholars believe that if Udall didn’t come up with the expression on his own, it would not have been in existence for long before he used it.

Historical Use of the Phrase in Text

Since the idea of making a ‘mountain out of a molehill’ has been around for so many hundreds of years, it’s no surprise it shows up with regularity in historical texts.

Our first example comes from one of the most famous suspense novels of all time, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins:

“I have abstained from expressing any opinion, so far,” says Mr. Superintendent, with his military voice still in good working order. “I have now only one remark to offer, on leaving this case is your hands. There is such a thing, Sergeant, as making a mountain out of a molehill. Good morning.”

We also find the phrase in The Parliamentary Debates in Great Britain from 1859:

“He must say a word with respect to the conduct of the Government in respect of their recent proceedings in the matter of the secret societies. People showed a disposition to blame the Government for the promptitude they had shown, and for the zeal with which the police had tracked out the members. It was said that the Government had shown a disposition to make a mountain out of a molehill. His decided opinion was that that affair would soon have swelled to a mountain if it had not been for the activity of the Government in dealing with it while it was a molehill.”

For our third example, we look to another document from Great Britain’s parliamentary debates, this time from 1887:

“Another reason was that in order to make a mountain out of a molehill, and to impress the country with the idea that there was a revolution in the Highlands, the authorities made a sort of State trial of the charges in Edinburgh; and the reason why the trial was taken to Edinburgh was that Edinburgh was the one place in Scotland where the atmosphere was polluted and poisoned with slanders against the crofters.”

Examples of 'Mountain Out of a Molehill' In Sentences

How would 'mountain out of a mole hill' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “I know they’re upset, but I also know they’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Pushing back the event by an hour isn’t a big deal.”
  • Let’s just take a step back and try and look at the situation rationally. I know it’s disappointing that you didn’t get into your dream school, but let’s be careful not to make a mountain out of a molehill.”
  • “I can’t believe he didn’t call me to tell me he wasn’t coming. I’m not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, but we could have gotten started an hour earlier if he had told us not to wait for him.”
  • “She is always wasting time at work. I know it seems like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but all of those lost hours really start to add up.”
  • “I’m sorry I overreacted on Friday. Now that I’ve had a little space from the situation, I realize that I was making a mountain out of a molehill.”
  • “John says that the picture makes him look fat, and he doesn’t want me to use it in the family Christmas card. I think he’s making a mountain out of a molehill. He looks like he always does in the photo.”

Other Ways to Say This Idiom

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'mountain out of a mole hill'?

Here are some options:

  • Much ado about nothing
  • Making a song and dance about nothing
  • Tempest in a teapot
  • A storm in a teacup
  • Crying over spilled milk
  • Blow things out of proportion

Final Thoughts About 'Mountain Out of a Molehill'

The expression to make a ‘mountain out of a molehill’ has been around for hundreds of years and is still widely recognized and used to this day. It illustrates the common behavior of exaggerating the impact of something that has occurred. Basically, when someone makes too big of a deal about a relatively minor issue, they can be said to be making a ‘mountain out of a molehill.’

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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