“A Perfect Storm” – Phrase Origin
Humans have used idioms to add flavor to speech since time immemorial. “A perfect storm” is one idiom that refers to a situation in which multiple bad things happen simultaneously. But where did this idiom come from?
The phrase “a perfect storm” got its current meaning from Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book – The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. He coined the phrase while conducting research into the Halloween Nor’Easter storm. However, the phrase has been used in other contexts since 1701.
If you’ve ever been curious about how this phrase was born, you’re in the right place. In the rest of this article, I’ll explain the origins of “a perfect storm,” its different uses over the centuries, and its current proliferation in pop culture.
How the Idiom “A Perfect Storm” Was Coined
The 1991 Halloween Nor’easter was something to behold.
While it may not have been the most powerful or destructive of its kind, it still managed to hurtle through the Atlantic, causing approximately $200 million, by 1991 estimates, in damages and killing 13 people.
Journalist and author Sebastian Junger decided to investigate this disaster. He previously penned articles that largely went under the radar, but in 1993, he started looking into the storm for his upcoming non-fiction book about the Halloween Nor’easter disaster.
His first step in this endeavor was gathering information about the storm’s origins, which he accomplished by interviewing people with knowledge of the storm’s origins and peculiarities.
His big break came from his conversation with Robert Case, a deputy meteorologist at the Boston branch of the National Weather Service. Case was the perfect interviewee for Junger, as he had first-hand knowledge of the storm, its origins, its trajectory, its characteristics, and the mess it left in its wake.
The meteorologist let Junger in on the series of events that conspired to create the perfect situation under which the Halloween Nor’easter reared its monstrous head, which included:
- Warm air from a low-pressure system.
- Cool, dry air resulting from high pressure coming in from another direction.
- Tropical moisture from the remnants of Hurricane Grace.
Junger was fascinated by Case’s use of the word “perfect” to describe such a destructive force of nature. Like any good author, he was able to latch onto that seemingly inconsequential detail and run with it. This detail birthed the title of his book.
He released “The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea” in 1997. The book was a resounding success, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for a year.
Junger’s book had a two-fold effect on language and culture.
- It reinvigorated the adventure creative non-fiction genre, which had experienced a lull since its official introduction in 1993.
- The book also introduced the idiom “a perfect storm” to the public. And, perhaps more importantly, it baptized the No-Name storm with a moniker that would eventually be adopted for situations beyond just meteorological events.
The 1991 Halloween Nor’easter: A Technical Fact Check
There are a few technical flaws in the interpretation of this fascinating phenomenon.
- The Halloween Nor’easter was an extratropical cyclone, not a storm.
- The weather events leading up to the Nor’easter were not unusual.
Most people categorize every sea tempest as a storm, even though most are fundamentally different from one another.
According to Merriam-Webster, a storm is “a disturbance of the atmosphere marked by wind and usually by rain, snow, hail, sleet, or thunder and lightning.”
However, the Halloween Nor’easter was a low-pressure area that clashed with a high-pressure anticyclone and generated a hurricane. It developed as it moved across the ocean, culminating in a massive hurricane with winds of up to 75 mph (120 kph).
It ended its Atlantic tour as a tropical storm on the coast of Nova Scotia, but due to the fuse that lit it, it is officially referred to as an extratropical cyclone.
Also, meteorologists interviewed by ScienceDaily revealed that the three ingredients that resulted in the Halloween Nor’easter caused many other storms. Some of those were even more powerful and disastrous than this one, contrary to Junger’s larger-than-life retelling of the event.
In fact, one of the experts interviewed for the ScienceDaily publication was none other than Bob Case himself. He clarified his famous remark – that by “perfect conditions,” he meant that the individual events “had to occur simultaneously in the right location” to create the cyclone.
However, he also praised Junger’s foray into these complex topics despite the few factual inconsistencies.
The Impact of the Feature Film “The Perfect Storm”
The phrase stuck to its meteorological roots between Junger’s book launch and the 2000 release of a movie of the same title.
In those three years, people predominantly used the phrase to describe a rare combination of weather conditions collaborating to generate a literal storm like the Halloween Nor’easter, which was a direct extrapolation of what Case had expressed.
It’s what inspired Junger to use the phrase as the title of his book.
However, the movie ushered the idiom into a new era. It shed its meteorological connotations and started referring to a concurrence of events that combine to create a disaster more enormous than the sum of its parts.
Published Uses of “A Perfect Storm” Throughout History
The phrase “a perfect storm” has been used for centuries. Here are some prominent uses of this idiom over time.
1701 – The First Known Published Use of “A Perfect Storm”
Richard Knolles, an English historian known for writing about the Ottoman Turks, had this to say about a particularly treacherous tempest:
“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.”
As per the Oxford English Dictionary, these early uses of the adjective “perfect” were more in line with “absolute” than what we associate it with today. For example, “He scampered away in perfect embarrassment.”
The 1800s – Publications Increase Their Use of the Phrase
Combining “perfect” and “storm” was starting to seem more intentional than a simple attempt to qualify a noun with an adjective. Here are some instances in which publications deliberately used the phrase in a manner closer to its modern-day usage.
- The Morning Post, 1827: “the overflowing audience burst into a perfect storm of rapture.”
- Bristol Mercury, 1855: “No sooner was he recognized than he was met with a perfect storm of groans and hisses.”
- 1860 US Civil War reports: “a perfect storm of grape and shell tore through their ranks, amid a perfect storm of bullets.”
Post-2000 – Modern Use in Pop Culture
The idiom “a perfect storm” somewhat disappeared over the next century and a half. The next published occurrences were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, beginning with Junger’s book.
- 2003, LA Times: “SARS is a ‘perfect storm’ of a disease.”
- 2003, Billboard: “50 Cent is the perfect storm of the rap world.”
- 2007: Contributors to the satirical Lake Superior State University word forum chose “a perfect storm” as the most overused phrase deserving banning.
Few phrases boast the rich and extensive history of “a perfect storm.” It started as an innocuous yet oxymoronic way to describe a literal storm in the early 16th century. After the 1991 Halloween Nor’easter and Junger’s subsequent hit novel, it has settled into its current definition. As of now, it refers to situations when multiple disasters combine to form a larger disaster.
Language is an extremely flexible phenomenon. Who knows what it’ll mean in another 100 years? Or will our successors abandon it altogether?