Is there a word in the English language which means either:

  • to cause a catastrophe by an act intended to avoid that very catastrophe, or
  • a catastrophe caused by an attempt to avoid that catastrophe?

(Note that the term "catastrophe" might represent any unfortunate outcome.)

For example, the case where someone knocks over and breaks a fragile item precisely because their desire to avoid knocking over that item was altering their behaviour (and not necessarily because of nerves).

This has been bugging me for months, and I've not been able to think of or find a word which fits this situation. If there's nothing in English, is there a word from another language which is a perfect match?

  • 2
    I know this isn't the answer you're looking for, but my brain is malfunctioning. I can't see your answer, because "self fulfilling prophecy" is standing the way. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-fulfilling_prophecy
    – Lumberjack
    Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 19:00
  • 1
    This is a recurring theme in time travel stories.
    – Lumberjack
    Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 19:04
  • 1
    See this Wikipedia link for some related terms.
    – iterums
    Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 20:24
  • There needs to be a better noun for this. Irony is too boad of a term. Backfire, even if used as a noun, is not descriptive enough either. The Thomas Theorem is similar but not the same. Thats where they say there going to be a shortage of toilet paper so everyone stocks up on toilet paper, thus causing a toilet paper shortage. What we need a word for is, lets say you don't want to loose something so you put it in a special place, but since you don't normally put things there, you forget you put it there and now cant find it. The former is ones perception causes the outcome, the later is causi Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 21:41

7 Answers 7


First of all, the situation you describe -- someone actively trying to avoid a negative outcome, but actually causing the negative outcome -- is the epitome of irony. But I don't think that's the word you're looking for.

Another word that describes this outcome is backfire. If you make a conscious effort to avoid a catastrophe, but you cause the catastrophe as a result, then your effort has backfired.

  • Even though it doesn't quite scratch the itch I have, the definition of 'backfire' is pretty much spot on. And I have to admit that 'backfire' did not spring to my mind before now. So I've accepted this as the answer.
    – Arkanon
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 18:14

I don't know if this is exactly what you want but there is an expression used in sociology and economics called self-fulfilling prophecy. Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-fulfilling_prophecy can explain it better, but I think the name is self-explanatory.


Backfire (“to bring a result opposite to that which was planned or expected: [eg] The plot backfired”), as mentioned in another question's answer, seems appropriate.

Also note the phrase hoist by one's own petard, which means “To be hurt, or destroyed by one’s own plot or device, of one’s own doing which one intended for another; to be “blown up by one’s own bomb”.”


In addition to the already given ones, you might find the following expressions helpful:

  • out of the frying pan into the fire

  • step on a bomb trying to avoid it

  • doing one's own undoing

  • dig one's own hole/grave

  • If something can go wrong, it will. (Murphy's Law)

  • You can't cheat fate.

  • Hell is paved with good intentions.

    (the older version of *The road to hell is paved with good intentions.)

I can't think of any single words, sorry.


The rather prosaic expression 'bring about the very thing we/you/... are trying to prevent/avoid' is often used.

Among many Google hits, one finds:

"The publication of the story now might bring about the very thing we are trying to prevent."

The undesired eventuality is not necessarily on the scale of a disaster.


I am looking for the same term. I read about it in terms of people trying to ration toilet paper and then causing a run on toilet paper which causes the shortage they were trying to avoid and the Chinese limiting couples to one child to avoid an inevitable famine and then causing the death and suffering of many children anyway etc. I found it! It is called The Thomas Theorem. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_theorem


It may not exactly match OP's request, but tinkering comes pretty close...

tinker: to handle thoughtlessly, ignorantly, or mischievously.
The camera hasn't worked properly ever since our son tinkered with it.

In Merriam-Webster's example usage, it's reasonable to suppose our son intended to fix the camera in some way. It's often used in contexts where incompetent remedial action makes things worse.

By way of a response to downvotes/comments, here are over 1500 results from Google Books showing how closely tinkering is associated with doing more harm than good.

  • 4
    That is interesting. I have never seen tinker used with a negative connotation before. Instead, I am more familiar with the definition provided by Oxford - "attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory way, often to no useful effect."
    – Lumberjack
    Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 19:38
  • @Lumberjack: I don't see what you mean. Surely often to no useful effect in your definition is a negative connotation. It's only a tiny stretch from no useful effect to making things worse. Whatever - if we're to believe Google Books (which I don't necessarily! :), harmful tinkering (243 results) is more common than useless tinkering (237 results). Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 21:26
  • I would not infer failure from tinker. I think the connotation is more “aimless” than “problematic.” Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 21:50
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers That's a fair point. But I would never associate tinkering with catastrophe. Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 22:33
  • 1
    I'm not saying that tinkering can never be catastrophic – simply that I'd never infer it from the word alone without further explanation. Which defeats the purpose of using the word for that meaning. Commented Sep 27, 2013 at 23:10

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.