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A perfect storm

“A perfect storm” is a common English idiom that is usually used as a metaphor to describe a worst-case scenario

The phrase dates back to at least the early 1700s and perhaps even earlier. There are historical examples of the phrase being used literally, to refer to a storm, and metaphorically to refer to a series of terrible things that caused an even worse event. 

A perfect storm idiom


Meaning of “A perfect storm” 

“A perfect storm” is used to refer to a confluence of events that results in an outcome. These events come together perfectly, so much so that outcome is either very bad or very good. As this implies, it is possible to use the phrase negatively or positively, although the former is far more likely due to the destructive nature of a literal “perfect storm.” It is usually used synonymously with the phrase “worst-case scenario.” 


When To Use “A perfect storm” 

It’s possible to use “a perfect storm” in a variety of situations. When it feels like everything that could go wrong has gone wrong then it’s likely to create a “perfect storm” of disasters, no matter how big or small. After having a terrible day that resulted in someone forgetting an important meeting, date, or event, it would be easy to call it a “perfect storm.” All the terrible things throughout the day worked together to put that person in a state of mind where they were capable of forgetting something very important. The phrase could also be applied to a political movement, a natural disaster, a war, or anything overwhelming and with high stakes. 


Example Sentences 

  • What happened today was like a perfect storm.
  • He created the perfect storm of fear and anger and look where we are now. 
  • Historians described the lead up to the revolution as a perfect storm. 
  • Do you have any idea what kind of perfect storm might be brewing in that country? 
  • Did you hear about what happened to me today? It was like a perfect storm of disaster. 


Why Do Writers Use “A perfect storm?” 

Writers use “a perfect storm” for the same reasons and in the same way that it’s used in dialogue in everyday conversations. The phrase is easy to understand, even if one hasn’t come across it before and it can apply to a wide variety of situations. It’s possible to find it in reference to a real storm, such as in the book and film described below, or used metaphorically, such as in the sentences above. It should be noted that this particular phrase is often considered to be overused or cliche. It has, for many, lost any interest or impact that it used to have. 


Origins of “A perfect storm” 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, this phrase dates back to 1718. It can be found in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. The passage reads: 

[…] and they and the poet together would burst out into a roar of oaths and execrations against the fictitious monster of the tale, so that the hat went round, and the bajocchi tumbled into it, in the midst of a perfect storm of sympathy.

In this iteration, the phrase is used to refer to an emotion. Other earlier version used the word “perfect” to emphasize how perfect or complete something is. There is another interesting citation from 1850 in which the Rev. Lloyd of Withington of Manchester, England describes the perfect storm of: 

thunder and lightning all over England (except London) doing fearful and fatal damage.

It’s thought that the phrase came into popular use after the publication of The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, a journalist. The book detailed a 1991 Halloween Nor’easter that included the three elements needed to make a “perfect storm.” These included warm air from a low-pressure system in one direction, a flow of cool and dry air from another direction, and moisture. The public was exposed to the phrase again when the book was adapted into a film of the same title. 


Related Idioms

  • “Perfect stranger.” 
  • “Add insult to injury.” 
  • Give someone the cold shoulder.” 
  • “You can say that again.” 
  • “Wrap your head around something.”
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