I don't mean something like 'many hardships' or 'several tragedies'. I'm looking for a word or short phrase that would describe just a really rough spot or time frame in someone's life. For instance, [s]he was fired, lost a loved one and/or a friend, a pet died, [s]he wasn't getting much support from those around him/her. How can I describe such a cluster of emotional events in a simple way?

  • 3
    Lemony Snicket's ? Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 7:51
  • "Life" is how I tend to describe it.
    – Andy
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 19:50
  • 1
    are you looking for a cliche? or for phrases generally? You might say something like "for a while her life was tragedy after tragedy".
    – Ramy
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 20:40

11 Answers 11


A bad patch. I've heard rough patch, too, but more commonly bad patch or rough time. I suppose sticky patch is chiefly British.


  • I've heard "bad/rough/stick patch" regularly applied to problems in relationships (e.g. "Their relation is going through a rough patch right now.") or other more specific instances (like problem at work, or problems with kids, etc.), but I can't say that I've ever heard it applied to life in general.
    – Nick2253
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 16:04
  • In Britain, the expression I think you are thinking of is 'sticky wicket', which is not applicable in this context. But we don't use the expression 'sticky patch' in this context, either. Despite what dictionary.Cambridge.org might say! It is too trivial in meaning to be a synonym for 'tragedy'.
    – Ed999
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 14:47
  1. Trial and tribulation.
  2. Ordeal.

i.e.: A period of trial and tribulation.


  • just out of curiosity: any idea whether the phrase "trials and tribulations" is etymologically based on the story of Job in the Christian Bible? Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 15:27
  • Would fit Hercules just as well.
    – Brian J
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 12:23


  • a state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune.

    • he had to cope with life's many adversities; she showed courage in the face of adversity.

also vicissitudes : (from M-W)

  • difficulties or hardship attendants on a way of life, a career, or a course of action and usually beyond one's control.

If all the unfortunate events take place within the same year, then that year might be an 'Annus horribilis'. It's latin but it's widely understood in British English, since the Queen's usage of it in 1992.

Although the phrase is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as being in use as early as 1985, it was brought to prominence by Queen Elizabeth II, in a speech to the Guildhall on 24 November 1992, marking the 40th anniversary of her accession, in which she described the closing of the year as an annus horribilis.

1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis.

  • 1
    This may be well understood to a BrE speaker, but I can't say that I've ever heard used by a layperson in AmE.
    – Nick2253
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 16:01
  • I've heard it. A bit "out there", though.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 20:46
  • Yes. I've edited my answer to specify BrE.
    – A E
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 20:47
  • 1
    Great suggestion; I think the antonym "annus mirabilis" is especially satisfying Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 2:22

The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms suggests

a chapter of accidents

Definition: a series of unfortunate events
This expression was apparently coined by Lord Chesterfield in a letter to Solomon Dayrolles in 1753: "The chapter of knowledge is a very short, but the chapter of accidents is a very long one"

  • I had to Ctrl-F or would of missed the cliched series of unfortunate events. I've never heard 'chapter of accidents'; events, maybe. +1 for the cliche that this question should be asking to avoid.
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 8:25
  • @Mazura I agree with your observations, and I feel "chapter of events" wouldn't necessarily express a run of unfortunate incidents. (Trying to avoid the clichè)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 8:31
  • 1
    When asked "What happened to her?" one might reply "There was a chapter of events..." The context defines it and tone usually requests that we not get into it. I have never heard 'chapter/series of fortunate events'.
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 8:47

One common formulation is "a litany of troubles [or problems]," where litany has the sense of "a sizable series or set." The entry for litany in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) shows an interesting line of meanings:

litany n (13c) 1 : a prayer consisting of a series of invocations and supplications by the leader with alternate responses by the congregation 2 a : a resonant or repetitive chant {a litany of cheering phrases—Herman Wouk} b : a usu. lengthy recitation or enumeration {a familiar litany of complaints} c : a sizable series or set {a litany of problems}

All three of MW's nonliturgical definitions of litany have emerged within the past seventy years—definition 2a in the Seventh Collegiate (1963), definition 2b in the Ninth Collegiate (1983), and definition 2c in the Eleventh Collegiate (2003).

Merriam-Webster's unhurried recognition of meaning 2c notwithstanding, use of the word in that sense goes back almost a century. The first instance of "litany of troubles" that a Google Books search finds is in David Hamilton, Pale Warriors: A Novel (1929):

"There's no moon to-night," she said. "You ought to know that. Now, Thaddeus, dear, I am sure you will forgive me if I hurry away without reciting my litany of troubles to you, comforting and reassuring as you are.

More clearly relevant to the OP's question is this occurrence from Caryll Houselander, The Dry Wood (1947):

From house to house went Father O'Grady, listening to the same litany of troubles, the aches and pains of rheumatism, the damp seeping into the walls, the swarms of rats, the way the landlord wouldn't repair the roof (God have mercy on the black-hearted devil), the long wait at the Labour Exchange, the hardness of the Means Test, the children who had to be hidden when the inspectors came, the new flats with hot water laid on where you mayn't have children or dogs or cats, so no one can live in them.


I'm not sure if this fits what you're looking for but another option may be "A tragedy of errors"

  • Isn't that a play on the name of Shakespeare's "A comedy of errors"? I'd have assumed that it had a theatrical meaning rather than a life-stage one.
    – Racheet
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 15:58

For those seeking a bit more artful phrasing, I propose:

(tempest-)tossed upon life's billows

Tempest-tost (also tempest-tossed), meaning "pounded or hit repeatedly by storms or adversities1" when used figuratively, has a long history, dating back to the late 16th century2.

The word has seen a fair bit of poetic use, perhaps most famously in the Emma Lazarus sonnet "The New Colossus":

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

As for "upon life's billows," the phrase appears to have originated been popularized in the 1897 hymn "Count Your Blessings" by Johnson Oatman, Jr.:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.3

An Internet search will reveal that "(tempest)-tossed upon life's billows" has seen some use without becoming cliché.

An example of the phrase in use, from A Memoir of Eli Bickford: A Patriot of the Revolution by Charles Ira Bushnell, published in 1865:

Yet the freshness of youth still lingered around his heart, rendering him a fitting companion for every age, and children and youth, as they gazed upon him, felt that even age had its attractions. When a century had passed by, and left him still tossed upon life's billows, thought left the busy present, and wandered back to the bright scenes of the past, and the old man was a child again.

1 https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/tempest-tost
2 http://www.dictionary.com/browse/tempest-tossed
3 https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/707


If the series of unfortunate events inevitably lead to an undesirable outcome (such as going bankrupt, or having a nervous breakdown) you could use "perfect storm," a term popularized by the book and movie called "The Perfect Storm." by Sebastian Junger (1997, 2000). ("Perfect storm" predates Junger's work.)

"The losses were her perfect storm. We weren't surprised to hear that she spent some time in the care of a psychiatrist that summer."


Here's a different perspective : "Splintered by stress" (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/splintered-by-stress/)


The Chinese phrase "May you live in interesting times". Means may you have lots of mishaps and events that cause your life to be interesting.... It means the same thing (as above) but in a veiled way that sounds like they are wishing a nice thing on you.

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