The Grammarphobia Blog

The imperfect storm

Q: I am REALLY tired of hearing the phrase “perfect storm.” I enjoyed the 1997 book that popularized it as a dangerous combination of weather conditions. But “perfect storm” is now used for every combination of unpleasant circumstances. It makes talking heads and politicians seem foolish (for a change).

A: I’ve noticed this too, and it never fails to make me wonder if the perpetrators know which way the wind is blowing. You may be surprised to learn, though, that the expression isn’t a new phenomenon.

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary has published references going back to 1718 for “perfect storm,” though the earliest citations use the phrase positively, as in a “perfect storm” of applause.

The first use of the expression in the meteorological sense comes from the March 20, 1936, issue of the Port Arthur (Texas) News: “The weather bureau describes the disturbance as ‘the perfect storm’ of its type. Seven factors were involved in the chain of circumstances that led to the flood.”

The OED defines the term as a “particularly fierce storm arising from a rare combination of adverse meteorological factors.” Sebastian Junger, in the foreword of The Perfect Storm, defines it as “a storm that could not possibly have been worse.”

No matter how you define it, the widespread metaphorical use of the phrase has gotten out of hand. Last year, the public relations department at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, MI, said “perfect storm” led its list of words and phrases that should be banned because of their numbing overuse.

A few examples: Energy Daily, a “perfect storm” of electric competition (1997); the Economist, a “perfect storm” in the markets (1998); the New York Times, a “perfect storm” of events (2002).

I wouldn’t suggest banning “perfect storm,” but let’s give it a much-needed rest.

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