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Perfect storm

Q From Thomas O’Dwyer: You know how it is when you hear a phrase for the first time, and thereafter the damn thing seems to be everywhere. During the Michael Jackson doctor trial a couple of months ago I heard the curious comment that “a perfect storm of drugs” had overwhelmed the singer and killed him. What, I thought idly, is a perfect storm when it’s at home. (Don’t get me started on when it’s at home.) Anyhow, ever since, every day, I seem to be assailed by a perfect storm of impeccable climatic disturbances. Help! Please explain what is this and where it’s blowing from.

A You’re clearly not a follower of the cinema, Mr O’Dwyer. Some readers may be wondering where you’ve been this past decade. The term was popularised by Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction book of 1997, The Perfect Storm, recording the events that led up to the loss of the fishing boat Andrea Gail and its crew of six off the Grand Banks in late October 1991. The term was further popularised by the film of the book, with the same title, that appeared in 2000.

Since then, the phrase has been taken up by writers clutching for an evocative term with which to enliven their prose. In the immortal words of the late Sam Goldwyn, it’s a new cliché, one that in its influence and ubiquity recalls the earlier feeding frenzy. As you’ve become all too aware, it has moved from its strict weather sense to become a figurative way of saying that some situation is as bad as it could be, or has reached a critical or extreme state. As early as 2003, it was receiving adverse comment:

“SARS is a ‘perfect storm’ of a disease,” according to the Los Angeles Times. 50 Cent is the perfect storm of the rap world, proclaims Billboard magazine. Newsweek has designated Jayson Blair, the plagiarizing New York Times reporter, as “journalism’s perfect storm.” The war on terrorism is the perfect storm of the airline industry, American recession is the perfect storm of European tourism, conservative politics is the perfect storm of public school orchestras everywhere. And somewhere, beneath the thunder, you can hear an English professor crying.

Los Angeles Times, 27 Jul. 2003.

Here’s a recent example taken from some 25,000 uses of the phrase since 1997 in one newspaper archive:

RMI petrol chairman Brian Madderson claimed a ‘perfect storm’ of rising oil prices and worries about supply could push diesel and petrol prices even higher by Easter.

Daily Mail, 21 Feb. 2012.

Perfect storm is said by the Oxford English Dictionary to be an especially powerful one that’s caused by a rare combination of weather conditions, though in the foreword to his book, Junger put it slightly differently, “I had some misgivings about calling it The Perfect Storm, but in the end I decided that the intent was sufficiently clear. I use perfect in the meteorological sense: a storm that could not possibly have been worse.”

He is said to have got the term from a conversation at the time of the storm with Bob Case, a deputy meteorologist with the National Weather Service, though each claims the other said it. Case noted later that Junger had the meaning wrong: the storm of October 1991 “wasn’t the biggest, wasn’t the worst, wasn’t the most deadly. It’s not even in the top ten. It was a unique situation and took an atmosphere that had the perfect elements in space and time to occur.”

Though it struck many people with hurricane force, it was far from a new phrase. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of the use of perfect storm by weather forecasters from as early as 1936 and points out that the phrase is much older. It’s even older than the OED believes:

All this Night the Wind so encreas’d, that in the Morning it was grown to a perfect Storm, and the Sea into a Breach; the Sky was so Black and Thick, and the Sun so Red and Lowring, that signified the continuance of it; and the Spray of the Sea, was so forcibly carry’d by the Wind over the Ship, that Masts, Yards, and Decks, were cover’d with a White Salt.

The Turkish History, by Richard Knolles, Vol 2, 1701.

But the OED argues that these, and the many other examples in the record, aren’t of an idiom but one example among many of perfect in the long-standing and still current sense of something absolute, unmitigated or utter, either in criticism or praise (“he blushed for perfect shame”, “he reduced himself to a perfect skeleton”, “he was a perfect child in the world’s ways”).

I have some slight doubts about this. Perfect storm had begun to look like a fixed phrase by the early nineteenth century, its having transferred from the sea and ships to the clamour of crowds: “the overflowing audience burst into a perfect storm of rapture” (The Morning Post, 11 Oct. 1827); “One of his supporters rose to second the resolution, but was met by a perfect storm of uproar” (London Dispatch, 26 May 1839); “No sooner was he recognised than he was met with a perfect storm of groans and hisses (Bristol Mercury, 2 Jun 1855). The British Library newspaper archive has some 200 instances from the 1840s alone, with that phrase being far more common than any other that contained perfect in the particular sense that the OED cites. The phrase’s peak in popularity occurred in the 1860s, in some part because of its use in reporting the Civil War in the US (“amid a perfect storm of bullets”; “a perfect storm of grape and shell tore through their ranks”; “under a perfect storm of canister and musketry”).

The phrase slowly lost its popularity in the subsequent 140 years, only to be revitalised by a chance conversation between a reporter and a weather forecaster. It confirms yet again that there’s nothing deterministic in the way our language evolves but that — like a ship in a storm — its future is dictated by uncontrollable and often unpredictable circumstances.

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Page created 10 Mar 2012