Hey Joe, can you fix simple problem A?
Sure, Sally, no problem! After all it's simple, right?

But A is then found to have dependent sub-problems B and C; B to have dependent sub-problems D, E, and F; and C to have dependent problems G and H.

The problems have to be removed in alphabetical order.

Context: As a software developer, I run into problems like this while working on bugs in complex programs.

I wonder whether there's an English name for this concept.

  • 1
    Can of worms is close, but not an answer because the point of the image is that it is best not opened at all. Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 23:33
  • 2
    Pandora's box of von Neumann worms. Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 23:39
  • See also FUBAR, Charley-Foxtrot, et al. Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 23:47
  • 2
    A hydra (but here the problem actually grew as a solution was attempted, rather than the estimate of the size of the problem/s). The tip of the iceberg describes the problem as first appraised. Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 0:20
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth I think the hydra is a perfect analogy because the two new heads aren't exposed until you first attack the problem, and the more you attack, the more heads are created. Thanks!
    – win32
    Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 4:25

4 Answers 4


Snowball is a verb meaning to increase rapidly or at an accelerating rate.

The present participle is snowballing.

Example: "Each problem led to other problems, with the size of the task snowballing so quickly that we couldn't manage it with the resources we had."

You might picture a snowball rolling down a hill. It starts out small, but with each revolution, it collects a layer of snow that has a volume that is proportional to its circumference. With each revolution, the circumference grows, and the mass of snow that is added is greater than the mass that was added in the previous revolution.


I will continue to look for a single word to describe "when a problem's understood complexity grows exponentially as you work on it," but I found some phrases that might fit the bill.

Hofstadter's Law is defined as:

[A task] always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

Some more phrases to consider may be found in this list of laws named after people. Another I think may work is Sod's Other Law.


It's a classic case of a problem spiraling out of control.

spiral, v. intr.: to continuously become worse, more, or less

spiral out of control: Crime has begun to spiral out of control in the capital.


Perhaps unfolding complexity describes the concept?

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