Rosie Right 

The perfect phrase

A reader has written complaining about the overuse of the idiom "perfect storm." It is, he says "an example of a nice phrase that has been taken up by everyone in a very short time and transformed into utterly banality."

He is correct, and one of the interesting things about this epidemic of usage is that it has occurred so quickly. The Oxford English Dictionary includes "perfect storm" citing a 1936 description of a storm at Port Arthur, Texas, as the first use the editors can find. OED also includes what it calls the "extended use" and describes it as the "worst possible or especially critical state of affairs, arising from a large number of negative and (usually) unpredictable contributory factors."

The popularity of Sebastian Junger's book and the film "The Perfect Storm" about the 1991 storm off New England was probably the cause of the rapid spread of the idiom. This storm was, according to Wikipedia, "the simultaneous occurrence of events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the result of their chance combinations. Such occurrences are rare."

The idiom has truly spread. Bill Barker of the Web site The Motley Fool complains that "like many others that have seeped into cultural consciousness, this phrase has lost much of its meaning. The storm that Junger wrote about was roughly a once-in-a-century occurrence. Nowadays, no combination of events seems too trivial to be called a perfect storm. … A brief search on Google News reveals that within the past week 'perfect storms' were responsible for the state of rural health care in Minnesota, hedge fund problems, and a recent subpar performance over about 10 games for the Detroit Tigers."

You can find it certainly in discussions of the subprime market problems, and if you look at accounts of a big event, it is likely you will find it tucked away in the description. Lo and behold, the title of The New York Times Magazine cover story Oct. 21 was "The Perfect Drought."

Some things -- but not all things — are perfect storms, but I hope we will slow down on the use so that we don't wear out a very interesting phrase. Enough already!

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