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I need a word, phrase, expression, metaphor etc for when lots of "insignificant" incidents or mistakes etc add up to make something major but by the time you realize it's major it's too late.

marked as duplicate by NVZ, Mitch, Nathaniel, choster, BladorthinTheGrey Nov 29 '16 at 17:13

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    Death by a thousand cuts. – Hot Licks Nov 27 '16 at 21:32
  • If you want to try your Scottish vernacular, then go with “moany a mickle maks a muckle”. A mickle was a very small denomination coin, and muckle means large. It is not only used to refer to monitory matters, but generally to that to which you refer, that seemingly insignificant things slowly build up until you finally notice something – Mawg Nov 28 '16 at 8:49
  • @OP, there are a lot of good answers, but the problem is that they all mean different thing (snowball effect, straw that broke the camel's back, boiling frog effect) depending on the context/circumstances that the events are happening in, and how they are relevant to the observer's point of view. Can you clarify your question further as to the type of scenario you wish to describe? – flith Nov 28 '16 at 11:24
  • @Mawg: That's actually a corruption of the original phrase, "many a little makes a mickle". "Mickle" here means a large amount. It never had anything to do with currency. – jsheeran Nov 28 '16 at 15:17
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    @NVZ: I'm rather surprised to find that the straw that broke the camel's back wasn't even suggested at all for the earlier question, but it's actually got more upvotes than my boiled frog here. To my mind, any such metaphorical camel would probably feel progressively taxed / irritated / burdened by each addition to the total load, so it seems a reasonable fit for being "worn down". Which is significantly different to a frog not noticing until it's too late (in theory, until he's totally boiled to death and incapable of noting anything). – FumbleFingers Nov 28 '16 at 15:43
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That would be Boiling Frog Syndrome Warning!1. As Wikipedia explains...

The boiling frog is an anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is put in cold water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that rise gradually.


1 I haven't actually followed that Youtube link. Don't blame me if it's too graphic!

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    Nice anecdote! The video is not too graphic don't worry.. – Shaun Wild Nov 27 '16 at 19:33
  • @Basically Alan Turing: As I wrote that I thought Would Youtube really let something like that through? But I bet someone has done at least a cartoon drawing, and quite possibly a moving video cartoon. I wonder where the Youtube "censors" (and public opinion at large) would draw the line, given that it's becoming increasingly easy to arbitrarily increase the photorealism of such material. – FumbleFingers Nov 27 '16 at 19:49
  • Insidious is an adjective describing danger/s that creep/s up on one. Insidious developments might suit. – Ronald Sole Nov 27 '16 at 22:33
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    That frog thing is a myth, by the way. – isanae Nov 28 '16 at 7:07
  • This is exactly the phrase that entered my mind. Thanks for saving me time! – Gray Roberts Nov 28 '16 at 13:53
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The straw that broke the camel's back

The idiom the straw that broke the camel's back, alluding to the proverb "it is the last straw that breaks the camel's back", describes the seemingly minor or routine action which causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, because of the cumulative effect of small actions.

  • This is a great one. – ktm5124 Nov 27 '16 at 22:45
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    Might be worth mentioning in this answer that a short form of this idiom / proverb is simply "the last straw" -- "That insult was the last straw." – JeremyDouglass Nov 28 '16 at 2:20
12

"Death of a thousand cuts" is an idiom [1] [2] that describes a large number of minor incidents (cuts) adding up to a disaster (death).

Related expressions:

"Nickle-and-dimed" (to death / into poverty) is an idiom in which tiny costs or losses (nickles and dimes) add up to a large negative outcome (being broke, in debt, or bankrupt). It tends to be specifically about transactions -- you wouldn't say "the boxer nickle-and-timed his opponent."

By comparison, "the straw that broke the camel's back" and "boiling frog syndrome" (discussed in other answers) both emphasize that the minor changes (each extra straw, the water temperature rising) are unnoticed until the sudden negative event (broken back, death). The frog doesn't jump out of the water, the camel doesn't complain. By contrast, the cuts and the nickles emphasize that the changes aren't unnoticed, but they seem minor -- until they add up!

On the opposite extreme, "Nibbled to death by ducks" is to be subject to constant petty annoyances, according to The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition. In contrast to the above idioms, here I believe the joke is that these small events never add up to one big negative event -- the ducks don't ever actually kill you, they just nibble and nibble, so to be nibbled to death by ducks is never to be killed at all, only annoyed. Contrast again the "death of a thousand cuts" which was a real historical torture and execution practice.

  • Just noticed that @HotLicks suggested death of a thousand cuts as comments before my answer. Would the normal thing be to "promote" that answer and add on to it rather than creating my own? – JeremyDouglass Nov 28 '16 at 1:32
  • Upvote it if you like, but your answer is fine. – chrylis Nov 28 '16 at 1:51
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    @JeremyDouglass It's a comment, not an answer, so the best you can do is give it a (relatively) meaningless upvote (there's no reputation attached). If they really wanted to answer the question they would have done so, rather than adding it as a comment; I generally consider that fair game for anybody to turn into an answer. – Anthony Grist Nov 28 '16 at 11:17
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    You could include "nibbled to death by ducks" in your related expression part. – Jeutnarg Nov 28 '16 at 20:54
  • @Jeutnarg -- I had never heard that one, so I had to find a citation, but it appears legit, so I'll add it. – JeremyDouglass Nov 28 '16 at 20:59
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The snowball effect is one good option. Usually something suffering from this effect is described as "snowballing out of control."

2

You could use "For want of a nail..."

For want of a nail the shoe was lost. 
For want of a shoe the horse was lost. 
For want of a horse the rider was lost. 
For want of a rider the message was lost. 
For want of a message the battle was lost. 
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. 
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Popularized by Ben Franklin, but much older than that.

1

I will give you two idioms to string together to express your idea.

*One thing led to another and the next she knew, things had gotten past the point of no return.

point of no return: the halfway point; the point at which it is too late to turn back. (Often with past.) The flight was past the point of no return, so we had to continue to our destination.

1

This may also be a case of Domino Effect.

ODO:

domino effect NOUN

The effect of the domino theory.

‘Equally worrying is the fact that delays are causing a costly domino effect as contractors incur costs while they wait for other workers to complete tasks.’

‘Such selfish driving practices prevent other drivers from being able to park correctly, which sometimes creates a domino effect in a line of spaces.’

0

A non-idiomatic way of expressing the same conditions as "a frog on a hot plate" is ignoring the cumulative effect of the situation until its too late. A related adjective is accumulative, but that has more to do with intensifying or magnifying. See Quora for more info.

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"The straw that broke the camel's back" doesn't work for this one. Comparing your situation to frogs in boiling milk will probably work, but it honestly depends on the context and you really don't want to use it for anything else other than comparison (in my opinion anyway, because it just sounds weird).

If you refer to a situation as "the boiling frog syndrome" then people will know what you're talking about, but it sounds strange compared to referring to a situation as "slowly spiralling out of control" while you were too busy to notice.

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    Why does the camel's demise not fit the situation???? – Hot Licks Nov 27 '16 at 22:51
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    @Hot Licks Because it's used to communicate the incongruity between some really minor event and a dramatic response. It's less like you didn't notice something until it was too late and more like you were really stressed out and threw a tantrum because you went to buy cookies and there weren't any chocolate chip left. – Chib Nov 27 '16 at 22:54
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    You apparently don't understand the meaning of the idiom. – Hot Licks Nov 27 '16 at 22:58
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    I think the key here is that the straw in question is the last straw. It is incongruous that a small weight broke the camel. It is also important that the camel isn't carrying one straw. The camel is carrying 1,000,000 straws... +1. After a day of being yelled at, those cookies were the last straw. – JeremyDouglass Nov 28 '16 at 1:23
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    @HotLicks idioms.thefreedictionary.com/… – Chib Nov 30 '16 at 1:22

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