Something small goes wrong, and this triggers something slightly bigger, which triggers something slightly bigger, and so on and so forth until you end up with a chain of problems of increasing severity until it ends in catastrophy.

Something like the old saying "for want of a nail the battle was lost", only highlighting that each intermediate issue was a problem in its own right, not just a stepping-stone to the final disaster.

Is there a common word/phrase that specifically describes this? I'm thinking "cascade of ever-increasing problems", but this seems clumsy, and I suspect there might already be a neat word or expression that covers it.

8 Answers 8


Snowball effect, which Josh beat me to, is the best choice.

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Cascading failure can also be used.

A cascading failure is a failure in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of a part can trigger the failure of successive parts. Such a failure may happen in many types of systems, including power transmission, computer networking, finance, human bodily systems, and bridges.

Also try the butterfly effect:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

Or the domino effect/chain reaction:

A domino effect or chain reaction is the cumulative effect produced when one event sets off a chain of similar events. The term is best known as a mechanical effect, and is used as an analogy to a falling row of dominoes

Source: Wikipedia

  • 6
    The new illustrated ELU. Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 9:11
  • 1
    A situation “snowballing out of control” is a derived phrase that fits well, and may be worth mentioning in the answer. Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 21:55
  • Similar to cascading failure is compounding error.
    – stevesliva
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 0:13

Snowball effect may apply to you description:

  • Metaphorically, a snowball effect is a process that starts from an initial state of small significance and builds upon itself, becoming larger (graver, more serious), and also perhaps potentially dangerous or disastrous (a vicious circle, a "spiral of decline"), though it might be beneficial instead (a virtuous circle). This is a very common cliché in cartoons and modern theatrics and it is also used in psychology.


  • 3
    You beat me to it :) +1.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 8:06

While I prefer snowball as an answer (provided by Tusher Raj and Josh61), another possibility is a "death spiral."

The situation or course of action of one who is on a path toward some sort of inevitable catastrohpic failure.



A Vicious circle is another option, not a single word sadly, but an often used phrase.

  • I thought of that, but it's the circle part that doesn't fit - vicious circle implies that the final thing causes the first thing to happen again.
    – Benubird
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:32
  • I see you're point, however it's more of a feedback loop as I understand. From the link These cycles will continue in the direction of their momentum until an external factor intervenes and breaks the cycle so they'll keep getting worse, from the consequence of the previous cycle until something breaks!
    – RemarkLima
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 11:04

Cumulative Error(s) or Accumulative Error(s).

Source: Memory. Definition: Errors that build over time, often from repeated incorrect or skewed observations.

Found online in multiple locations, this being one.


It seems Murphy's law is the case here. And how about to say simply : It gets worse and worse.


I've heard of cumulative errors and the snowball effect also referred to with the engineering term stacked tolerances, though I can't find much on the internet referring to it in slang, jokes, or nontechnical explanations. I only find it in the literal.

Tolerance Analysis is a process to minimize such errors, and seems to be primary a mechanical engineering term, though the concept multiple sets of tolerances causing a problem at the end of the line can apply to any engineering or cooperative problem.


I've also just heard 'horseshoe nail' as shorthand for the story.

  • 2
    Nova, Welcome to EL&U. Thanks for your reply. However, you really need to give more explanation of your phrase. Like: where it comes from; what it means; how it relates to the question. You should also give some reference to back up your idea (look on the internet for instances of the use of your phrase, as well as attribution for the reference.) That's how it should be done here
    – Margana
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 21:06
  • 1
    The kingdom was lost for want of a nail? The expression would require careful context building to be clear.
    – ScotM
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 22:49

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