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.