How many times in the last few years have you heard about “perfect storms”? That poor cliche is like a horse that’s been “rode hard and put away wet.” Whatever does it mean?
A “perfect storm,” quoting Wikipedia, is “an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically.”
Certainly it has been around long enough to outlive its usefulness. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this expression back to 1718, a tribute to the sheer persistence of some research person.
More recently, it has been traced in its meteorological sense back to March, 1936, when it appeared in a Port Arthur, Texas, newspaper: “a perfect storm . . . Seven factors were involved in this chain of circumstances that led to the flood.”
Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book, “The Perfect Storm” is credited with bringing the expression into pop culture.
If you watched the 130 minute movie, “The Perfect Storm,” back in 2000, starring George Clooney, the special effects were “perfect” enough to induce mild seasickness. And people were looking for places to describe as a “perfect storm.”
It is no wonder that in 2007, Lake Superior State University awarded the phrase top prize in a published list of words to be banned for overuse.
However, the urge to use “perfect storm” continues because of its succinct descriptive power. I recall an incident when I was in high school that could have been characterized that way.
I had recently bought a car. To celebrate, I invited my friend Doug, a high school classmate, to drive into town and go to a movie with me. It was a guy thing.
Seven factors came to be involved in the chain of circumstances that led to our “perfect storm.”
The first was a temporary swap of my car for a motorcycle that I had only ridden once.
The second was that Doug was afraid of motorcycles and had never even ridden a bicycle.
Third, he lived on a dirt road out in the country.
Fourth, it was dark after the movie and I hadn’t learned the controls by feel. I had to hunt for the light switch. Doug seemed nervous.
Fifth, it started to rain. Soon we were both wet and shivering.
Sixth, we had neither helmets nor goggles. The rain nearly blinded us, not that it made much difference out on his country road.
Seventh, his driveway was an uphill pair of deep ruts. After we slithered, kicked, and pushed the motorcycle as far as where the ruts began, he mumbled something, slid off and ran away up the ruts.
We stayed friends after that. But he never once mentioned our perfect storm. Ever.
We had never heard “perfect storm,” but if we had, I’m sure we would have used it.