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Published: Friday, 11/30/2007

Perfect storm of cliches: Too often, we hit the ground running, trying for that win-win situation, forgetting to think outside the box

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Whew.

That was not close.

Not at all.

Today, as you have probably already discussed over breakfast, is the very last day of the 2007 Atlantic Hurricane Season, and so, for yet another year, Toledo - indeed, the entire Midwest - has dodged another bullet. No hurricanes in Toledo this time around. This, of course, is not a revelation. Being here, in Toledo, landlocked, hundreds of miles from an ocean and a Gulf Stream, surrounded by lakes and flatness, with no serious history of hurricane activity, dear God ...

Could it be?

It is.

A perfect storm.

Of non-hurricane conditions.

What we can not avoid, however, what no one is immune to, is that phrase, that irritating, overworked phrase - "a perfect storm." Its path of literary and verbal destruction is vast, without end or discrimination, cutting broad swaths through high-brow magazines and daily newspapers and TV and radio broadcasts alike, a frighting cliche of seemingly historic reach.

Gathering intensity.

All escape roads are blocked.

"Well, some cliches do eventually fade out," said Robert Hartwell Fisk, the grammarian and author of The Dimwit's Dictionary of overtaxed words and phrases. "But I don't see this one fading. In fact, I think it's been more popular, I'm so sad to say."

On National Public Radio, discussing the wildfires in California, Captain Andrew Olvera of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said the combination of dry weather and low humidity and gusty winds caused "something called a perfect storm." But the irony of "a perfect storm," and its vaulting into the ranks of verbal nails on a blackboard, is that the phrase is so rarely used these days to describe weather.

"I don't have a problem with it and even use it in a variety of ways myself that are not weather-related," said Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, which is headquartered in Boston. "It really evokes an image of the sum being greater than its parts, of simultaneously occurring things."

Keith, you're not helping.

Earlier this year, for instance, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "May was another perfect-storm month for the NBA." (As rare an event as a perfect storm must be, the NBA has seen its fair share.) To the Associated Press, a strong showing by Tiger Woods was a "perfect storm of scoring conditions." Budget cuts in the Baltimore Sun led to a "perfect storm of unintended consequences." To a striking writer in the Los Angeles Daily News, the confluence of the Internet, TiVo, cable TV, and DVDs, can only mean we are "looking at a perfect storm."

But wait, that's not all.

Batten down the hatches.

In 2002, the retirement of running back Ricky Williams from the Miami Dolphins and the exit of coach Dave Wannstedt "was the rogue wind that became a perfect storm" (so sayeth the New York Times). To Entertainment Weekly, a Bill Maher hissy fit and an Ellen DeGeneres on-camera breakdown in the same week led to "a perfect storm of celebrity over-sharing." There's also been a "perfect storm of "real-estate headaches" and "a perfect storm of perfection" and "Scooby Doo is the perfect storm of cartoons." (It is?) According to The Nation, "a perfect storm stalks American prosperity," though hopefully Anderson Cooper is nearby - last month, the CNN anchor used the phrase two times in five days to describe those Southern California fires.

•

"It's just empty verbiage."

That's Pat O'Conner, a former editor at the New York Times Book Review and author of the well-regarded grammar books Woe is I and Words Fail Me. And when I called her, as we spoke, we found we were on the same page; and so we hit the ground running; we were going forward, and at the end of the day, all things being equal, our irrational exuberance was at a minimum.

Yada yada yada.

"Just wasted words," she said.

Then proceeded to add:

"Take 'the situation on the ground' - what else would troops be doing, hovering? And I hate 'jump start,' as in 'jump start the economy.' And of course, there's 'going forward,' and 'win-win situation,' and '24/7,' and 'Let's touch base,' and 'at the end of the day,' and 'thinking outside the box' which is so inside the box it's a sign you're not thinking now. But 'a perfect storm' - I understand why it catches on. One writer uses it and it clicks. It seems to explain everything, then another writer uses it, then you see it everywhere. I haven't seen 'a perfect storm' as much as you have, but I have seen a lot of 'magisterial' in the Times Book Review these days. Everything is 'magisterial.' It's just becoming so annoying.

"Cliches used to catch on slower before the Internet. Now someone spots a clever turn of phrase, and since all writers use the Internet, overnight it seems to be everywhere. And for that reason, it does burn out faster."

Deadline pressure.

Exhausted reporters.

Easily arrived-at phrasing.

Conditions are ideal.

"Oh, this so irritates me," said Chris Wienandt, president of the American Copy Editors Society, a professional organization of mainly newspaper copy editors.

"Phrases like 'a perfect storm' will come along periodically and capture the imagination of writers and they all think it's the only way to describe something, or they think they're being intensely clever and after the first half dozen times that phrase has lost its effectiveness and it just ends up sounding like lazy writing."

But like Mr. O'Conner, he too has a bit of sympathy for us hacks: "The thing about 'a perfect storm' is that it encapsulates a thought that is hard to express, and so it's tempting, because a wise writer is going to know better than to use instead 'a confluence of events that have led to the worst possible conclusion.' "

Yes, a smart writer should.

But even the New Yorker magazine, that bastion of the written word (with its infamously hard-to-please copy desk), has let the phrase slip into its vaunted pages twice in the past year - once, in a piece on political dynasties, to describe the 1962 replacing of John F. Kennedy's Senate seat with Edward Kennedy. Excluding the use of a certain film or book reference (more on that in a bit), the major weeknight network newscasts (NBC, ABC, CBS) used it a total of 32 times in the past year; USA Today used it 22 times, and the New York Times (drum roll, please), a startling 57 times.

To describe oil prices.

To describe poison oak - "a perfect storm of a plant."

In his review of the Steve Carell comedy Dan in Real Life, A.O. Scott described the ending as "the perfect-storm mother of all cliches" - which is either a subtle wink or a literary felony.

What about The Blade?

Not a once.

No, I'm kidding.

We've used it 155 times since 1997 - but many of those were book or movie references, and only a handful have been boneheaded, including, from a real idiot, "a perfect storm of trouble" to describe Hollywood's summer box-office slump two years ago.

That idiot was I.

I plead mercy.

It began innocently, cleverly: In 1997, Sebastian Junger wrote The Perfect Storm, a nonfiction account of a Massachusetts fishing boat lost in a 1991 Nor'easter; its six crew members were presumed drowned. Junger adopted the term after a National Weather Service meteorologist in Boston described the rare confluence of conditions that created this storm as "perfect." Then came the 2000 movie. That said, a spokesman with the NWS's east coast headquarters said the phrase was not widely thrown around - then or now.

Indeed, Kenneth Haydu, the chief meteorologist with the NWS's southern Ohio office, said "I haven't used it once after 30 years in the Weather Service and am proud to say I've never used 'Storm of the Century,' either."

But Ken, you don't get a say.

"One explanation for the spread of cliches is that a community's influential people and taste maskers read these things first then run them up a flag pole and see if they stick," said Dorothy Siegel, director of the linguistics program at the University of Toledo. "Listeners want to identify themselves with these people - a lot of language choices have to do with how we want to be seen by others. If you call a couch a davenport, you project an image of you, which is why young people, in particular, go out of their way define themselves as linguistically separate."

Whatever. Talk to the hand.

•

At the front lines of this so-called War on Overused Phrases, surging forward, thinking outside the box, is an American hero, tiny Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Since 1976, on New Year's Day, as a cheap way of drawing publicity to the Upper Peninsula institution, the public relations department has issued a list of ugly words it would like turned away by Mother English. They're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here. Last year, for instance, its List of Banished Words was a veritable buffet table of irritation, including "Gitmo" (for Guantanamo Bay), conjoined celebrity names ("TomKat"), "awesome," the overuse of "i" before anything (as in iPhone), and "We're pregnant." But not "a perfect storm."

"I think it's an oversight," said Tom Pink, LSSU's spokesman. "Sometimes these things die a natural death before they make the list, but 'a perfect storm' is gaining momentum, I think. I've noticed others have requested it be included this year, too. And we've also had quite a few people ask us to include 'Black Friday.' "

And "Cyber Monday"?

"No one submitted it yet."

Can I?

"Sure."

Awesome.

At the end of the day, what's bad about "a perfect storm" is not that it's inappropriate ("I mean, it is derived from a mass death," said grammarian Fisk), or useless ("What do you do when something worse comes along?" said Mr. Haydu of the NWS).

It's that you sound lame.

"I'll admit, I shudder when I hear people say it," said Arthur Plotnik, the Chicago language expert who wrote The Elements of Editing. "You feel a little disappointment in someone when they pull out a tired phrase." Eventually, it just reveals "how out of touch you are for using it," said Ms. Siegel at UT. "Already I'm hearing new ones around here."

Such as...

"Such as, a friend of mine, who is a semi-suit, reported back to me that all the suits around UT have been saying 'Let's look at this problem from 30,000 feet.' "

Seriously?

"You heard it here first."

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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