Imperfect Storm

I’m sure I am not the only person annoyed by the overuse of the phrase “perfect storm”. The phrase first appeared with the book and movie of that name, referring to a real storm in 1991. I lived in Massachusetts at the time, and it was indeed a notable storm for me, as a very large branch fell in my yard, fortunately just missing my house which would have been seriously damaged. The phrase referred to the combination of weather conditions which led to the storm, the idea being that they combined in a way which made the storm multiplicatively worse rather than merely additively worse.

So far, so good, although it’s worth noting that it’s not that unusual for those weather conditions to combine–it’s a lot more common than the similarly proverbial 100-year flood. So the phrase really refers to a combination with powerful effect rather than, say, something very rare.

Unfortunately once the phrase escaped into common use it rapidly started to mean something else. As far as I can tell the current meaning is, more or less,”an unexpected coincidence with a bad effect.” Now, that’s something that happens all the time; we call it “bad luck” or “bad planning.” Calling it a “perfect storm” becomes a way of making whatever happened seem like an unavoidable force of nature, when in many cases it is nothing of the sort.

Please never use the phrase “perfect storm” unless you really do mean a powerful combination of several unrelated coincidences. Actually, please never use it at all. Thanks for your attention.

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