I have a difficult relationship with throw-away metaphors like ‘The Perfect Storm’. They can be amusing. They can make language more colourful. And occasionally, they may even put across an idea more effectively and succinctly than plain language. But mostly, they do exactly the opposite.
‘The Perfect Storm’ is perhaps the most over used metaphor-turned-cliche in the media today. Used casually, we assume we know what it means. Think about it a little more, and it seems a careless, inaccurate description – the opposite of what we actually mean to say. Maybe it’s just my obsessive mind, but picture this…
The Perfect Storm
You’re walking through a beautiful, imagined English landscape of soft contours, with fields and hedgerows, and little copses dotted around. It’s mid-afternoon on a hot day. There’s no breeze, and the air feels stale. The land is dry, but not excessively so (we’re in England). But it needs rain. It’s been warm and dry for a week or more, but today, there’s an increased humidity, making the heat stifling.
But then, you notice a line of cloud rising up from the horizon, and quite quickly, even as you watch, great towers of cumuli-nimbus bubble up, creating fantastical shapes and effects. There’s movement in the air now, and the wind builds – not to a gale, or a tornado, but a warm breeze that gently soothes away the discomforting heat. There’s a flash, followed soon after by the deep bass rumble of thunder. The animated cloud moves closer, obliterating the blue of the sky.
There’s another flash of lighting, and then another, followed in quick succession by thunder. Now the cloud is almost overhead, and the first drops of rain begin to fall. But you don’t run for cover. The rain is warm, and you welcome it with arms outstretched, face turned up to the sky. The raindrops splash on your face, building in intensity, until it’s like standing under a warm shower; refreshing and exhilarating, making you feel more alive than you’ve felt for a long time.
In less than five minutes, enough rain falls to rejuvenate the parched landscape. And then it stops. You can see the rain falling from the clouds as they move away, and as the sun emerges once more, a rainbow appears, brighter, and more intensely coloured than any you can remember having seen before. The wind has dropped to the slightest of breezes, the air is cooler and fresher, but still comfortably warm. There is a moist, earthy smell rising from the ground, and you can almost hear seeds swelling, and plants drawing moisture up into their leaves. The sun, re-instated, warms and dries you as you continue with your walk. All is, indeed, well with the world…
That’s how I would describe the perfect storm. But ‘The Perfect Storm’ is used to mean a situation where numerous factors combine to make it as bad as it could be; rain so heavy as to cause landslides, wind strong enough to destroy buildings, and lighting strikes that take out the power network. All of which is anything but perfect.
During my time in the IT industry I faced an on-going struggle to get my colleagues to use plain English. Reports intended to communicate processes and policy to a wide audience, with varying IT knowledge, would end up being unintelligible to anyone who wasn’t up to date with an ever-changing, ever more absurd catalogue of in-crowd clichés. I think people in most industries will have experienced something similar. Clichés tend to confuse the meaning of language – it’s easier to repeat a popular metaphor than to actually consider what it is you want to express. Words are the tools of the trade for the media. I wish they’d choose them more carefully…
text © graham wright 2022