Imagine thinking back to a bad event from your past. You realize the bad event did not happen all at once but was the climax of a chain of events.

I wonder if there is a specific word to describe the very first link in this chain of events, the last link of which is the worst. In other words, in retrospect--since hindsight is 20/20--you realize the very first link presaged the worst event which was yet to come.

  • Like the first domino to fall? – Davo Apr 19 '17 at 14:43
  • Close, but domino effect is still not saying anything about the first event, even though it has that connotation attached to it... – Andy Semyonov Apr 19 '17 at 14:56
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    “A mighty flame follows a tiny spark.” Dante – k1eran Apr 19 '17 at 15:10
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    @Palizsche: I like your word "precipitating," but I think the OP is not referring to the penultimate event (which is what precipitating implies) but to the first in a series of MANY bad things (not just the precipitating event) leading up to THE bad thing. I suppose, however, that you CAN speak accurately of there being MANY precipitating events, one after the other . . .. Don – rhetorician Apr 19 '17 at 16:05
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    I use, in retrospect, the snowflake that snowballed. – vickyace Apr 19 '17 at 16:36


2. anything that foreshadows a future event; omen; sign:

His introduction to the City of Love was a harbinger of many “no means yes” paradoxes to come.


  • @Josh also provided the same answer but removed his answer for a reason. There could be a harbinger for each of the bad things that are about to happen after the first event, making the first one the first harbinger. – vickyace Apr 19 '17 at 16:18
  • I also feel that harbinger does not imply causality. Thus while a harbinger can be a sign or omen it is not necessarily what you’d call the first in a series of events. The straw that broke the camels back that resulted in the whole caravan stopping and getting waylaid by robbers who kidnapped the princess is not a harbinger. – Jim Apr 19 '17 at 17:05
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    @jim: Having feelings is a commendable practice. – Ricky Apr 19 '17 at 17:46

Good question, and frankly my answer may be a bit shaky. Hold on though.

The tricky aspect of your question (whether you realize it or not) involves two things: timing and perspective.

You seem to imply that only in looking back do you realize "decision X" (for example) was a harbinger of things to come. At the present, however, only from your perspective of hindsight, was your "decision X" a harbinger of all the events subsequent to it, including the last really bad event in that chain of events.

(You'll notice I'm assuming that each link in the chain which culminates in the really bad event is also bad, at least to some extent. Correct me if my assumption is wrong.)

At the time of the first--the "kick-off event"--in the chain of events, you did not realize the first event was a harbinger. For that reason, in a funny sort of way that first event could be described as the sine qua non, which is a Latin phrase meaning "without which, not."

Put differently, your "decision X" turned out to be the event without which the last bad thing would not have happened (i.e., the sine qua non).

I know that usually the phrase sine qua non means the absolutely necessary thing upon which everything which follows depends. For example,

"The perfect cake is the sine qua non of the carefully planned modern wedding"

That means a carefully planned wedding (and, I assume, a successful wedding, which is a good thing) cannot happen without there first being a perfect wedding cake.

Why, I ask, cannot the first bad event in a series of bad events leading up to the last really bad event be considered the sine qua non? After all, the first bad event got the ball rolling, did it not? Without that first event, the last bad event would not have transpired.

I suppose another possible word for that bad, first event could be linchpin, which means

something that holds the various elements of a complicated structure together.

  • Great analysis first up but I'm afraid neither linchpin nor sine qua non seem to do appropriate justice to the given situation. Neither would work in the absence of context that I've provided. Anyhow, I reckon this elusive word, if it exists at all, would easily qualify as the antonym of the phrase 'last straw that broke the camel's back'. – Andy Semyonov Apr 19 '17 at 16:50

It was only the beginning

is a common way to refer to the first of a series of events. However, it can refer to the first of a pleasant series as well as one that ends badly. Here's a Google Ngram that will lead you to many instances of the phrase.

it was only the beginning

Consider also seminal (OED)

seminal adjective

1Strongly influencing later developments.
‘his seminal work on chaos theory’

The term initiating event is the event that starts a chain of events leading to some more recent or ultimate consequence. The phrase is found in technical documents on reliability and risk and also in literature as that which begins the sequence of events that make up a novel, for example.

In first case, you can find it used in studies of safety planning for nuclear reactors, as with this example:

For nuclear power plants, an initiating event can be, for example, a pipe break (small loss of coolant). The functions called on to mitigate such an event, which then become the tree branch of events, would include... (from Space Modeling and Simulation... Larry Rainey, Paul Davis)

Following a path through the described tree structure becomes the resulting chain of events.

This definition illustrates how it is used in the case of literature:

An initiating event is a literary term which refers to the first stimuli in a novel or story that triggers the conflict in the plot of a story line... When a reader can identify the initiating event in a story which stimulates the conflict the story is much more interesting and easier to understand. After the initiating event the reader will encounter the conflict, rising action, climax and resolution of the story.

You might just use initiator when you want to be brief.

In visual or metaphorical terms, you can also use the first domino, which is generally understood to be that thing that initiates the fall of all of the other dominos. With a simile, you can describe events as like a line of dominos, all subject to the state of the first domino.

In epidemiology, patient zero refers to the very first patient that initiated an epidemic. You might use similar terminology, such as alpha event to refer to that first initiating event.


The event which started it all can be called the trigger.




1.1 An event or circumstance that is the cause of a particular action, process, or situation.

‘the trigger for the strike was the closure of a mine’

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