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I am composing a letter to the owner of my company. In the letter I am trying to describe a situation where a problem occurred due to a confluence of failures. E.g., our tom-foolery server crashed, because the backup failed and the widget was faulty and the wickets were rusty and the elbows weren't bent enough. The system wouldn't have crashed, but for this coincidence of these specific failures.

The phrase that first came to mind was "Perfect Storm" which is defined by MacMillan Dictionary as follows:

a very unpleasant situation in which several bad things happen at once

My example sentence

Normally the server can handle a backup failure without crashing, but that was not the case today due to a ________________.

I am worried that Perfect Storm may not be easily understood in this context. I am hoping that I can find a word or phrase that will be understandable and professional.

I searched all of the major dictionary sites for synonyms to Perfect Storm but I couldn't find any at all. Next, I searched Stack Exchange for similar questions. There are a couple of questions here on ELU that are related to the phrase Perfect Storm, but unfortunately none provide a synonym.

I am hopeful that you can help me. Please feel free to reword my example sentence in any way you would like that will provide a professional understandable synonym for "Perfect Storm" in the context outlined above.

What is a synonym for “Perfect Storm”?

  • 3
    I think "perfect storm" would actually be understood. – Barmar Sep 25 '18 at 18:35
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    @Barmar I must respectfully disagree. My boss doesn't get out much and doesn't watch many movies. The one time I did use the phrase in his presence he looked like a deer caught in the headlights. – Lumberjack Sep 25 '18 at 18:42
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    You don't have to watch movies. It's a common metaphor, although it did become more well known after the movie. – Barmar Sep 25 '18 at 18:53
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    I’m now trying to figure out what kind of IT setup you have that involves a tomfoolery server (whatever that is), iron wickets (is that a thing?) and bent elbows. So far, I’m failing miserably. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 25 '18 at 22:09
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    Our server died due to an elaborate multi-pronged cosmic denial of service attack. – Jim Sep 25 '18 at 22:22

10 Answers 10

18

You might refer to the situation as a confluence of errors...

: a coming or flowing together, meeting, or gathering at one point
a happy confluence of weather and scenery
definition from m-w.com

  • A "nexus" of events. – user22542 Sep 26 '18 at 17:47
  • +1 Thank you Hellion. I'm leaning towards this as my chosen answer. – Lumberjack Sep 28 '18 at 15:40
10

None of these words have exactly the same meaning as perfect storm, but they might suffice. Debacle and fiasco both mean a complete (and humiliating) failure:

debacle

NOUN

A sudden and ignominious failure; a fiasco.

‘the only man to reach double figures in the second-innings debacle’

(from the Oxford Living Dictionaries)

fiasco

NOUN

A complete failure, especially a ludicrous or humiliating one.

‘his plans turned into a fiasco’

Unless your boss is British, he likely won't understand the word omnishambles and it doesn't really fit, but I just discovered it and quite like it:

omnishambles

NOUN

British
informal

A situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.

‘anyone with five minutes to spare, a Maths GCSE, and a calculator could have averted the entire omnishambles by checking the civil servants' sums’

If you want to stress that the issue was caused by a combination of events out of your control (as in, it wasn't your fault), your best bet is probably perfect storm, perhaps followed by a definition:

Normally the server can handle a backup failure without crashing, but that was not the case today due to a perfect storm of multiple unrelated events that conspired to cause the crash.

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    Thank you Roger. I have never heard omnishambles but I love it! – Lumberjack Sep 25 '18 at 20:22
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    AND I really appreciate your suggestion at the end. Use perfect storm and add on some more clarification. – Lumberjack Sep 25 '18 at 20:23
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    Omnishambles was apparently coined by the scriptwriters of the brutally hilarious British political satire The Thick Of It : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omnishambles – Jeremy Sep 26 '18 at 6:53
6

I believe "comedy of errors" would be understood in the way you intend. It's the title of a play by Shakespeare involving identical twins with identical servants and, well, it's Shakespeare.

"The phrase ‘a comedy of errors’ is often used to describe a situation that is so full of mistakes and problems that it seems funny." Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

  • Good solution, but I'm reluctant to upvote it, as it doesn't quite meet the standard of answer we would expect - see How to Answer. If you edit your answer to add a dictionary definition of "comedy of errors", with a hyperlink to the source, I would readily give you +1 (and you'd be adding to the value of both your answer, and our site as a whole). :-) – Chappo Sep 26 '18 at 4:41
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    I would hesitate a long time before telling my boss something with the word "comedy" in it about a disaster, if I was in any part responsible for the problem. It's just dangerous. – Jeffiekins Sep 26 '18 at 14:51
4

One sometimes refers to situations or circumstances as "snowballing" and this has no specific blame component, but clearly implies a relationship in which each failure or issue in a chain compounds the previous issue to become far worse, and whose progress from fine to really not fine is accelerating in an uncontrolled manner.

I've sometimes heard "concatenating circumstances" to cover the unanticipated intersection of multiple low-probability events and failures but without the sense of breakneck accelerating pace.

You can, if intending to anonymously ascribe non-specific blame of mishandling, use either of the US military jargon acronyms "FUBAR" or "SNAFU"... both of which have "polite" versions and "salty" versions - I'll list here the polite: Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition and Situation Normal: All Fouled Up - Fubar typically only implies that a condition has become utterly unfixable and doesn't necessarily ascribe cause, blame or process, whereas Snafu clearly implies "this started off a cakewalk, and has been turned (via mismanagement) into a giant steaming mess".

If being directly crude / soldierly /salty in language is in fact appropriate in your circumstance, you could say "shitstorm" and this turn of phrase, like "perfect storm", can be done in a no-specific-personal-blame-assigned manner to indicate the unanticipated intersection of multiple low-probability events and failures. It is also used frequently to describe a huge ongoing mass of incoming criticism - hence recent use by the current US White House communications team.

In the IT sector in the United States, "black swan" is a specific word used to describe a project which started off seeming reasonable and which has since snowballed out of control, and which, as a project continues to amass ever-increasing levels of complexity, scope creep, new requirements and emergent dependencies now seems destined to suck all available resources without reaching completion in a reasonable time or possibly at all. Use-case: "The special Milspec-compliant PDF viewer for Samsung Watches has become a total black swan project - we need to kill it now."

Hopefully some of this helps.

1

An earlier answer mentions confluence of errors.

In this tech context I would suggest a confluence of failures. Alternatively, simply describe it as multiple individual failures occurring at the same time.

If this is in an IT/tech context then referring to a "perfect storm" may be received as an attempt to exaggerate the severity of the conditions that led to the ultimate failure - potentially in order to avoid responsibility.

Reporting matter-of-factly that numerous individually small errors perfectly co-incided may be better received.

As a side note, disasters are almost always a confluence of multiple failures, and rarely the result of a single fault. For this reason, disaster prevention often focuses on eliminating the low-severity faults and failures in a system. By doing so you help minimise the possibility of your perfect storm.

1

'Perfect storm' contains 'perfect' which at first glance gives the opposite sense to that required, so might be a poor choice.

If none of the suggested alternatives (like 'confluence of...') exactly suits your meaning or, as your question hints, the likely interpretation by your reader, risk verbosity by writing say, "..., as it were, a 'perfect storm', in that not only X and Y failed but Z too."

If your reader is one of those with a short attention-span and who can handle only simple sentences, resort to the bullet-point approach...

The ABC system failed because:

  • The X failed
  • The Y was off whilst being maintained
  • The Z blah blah

"

1

multiplicity of unrelated failures

Seems more appropriate to me as it does not suggest the events occured in a sequence, but could have occurred in parallel as well. There is no "the answer" to a request for a phrase in the English language - anything can be described in multiple ways.

  • 1
    This answer could be improved by showing that it is not just a suggestion but actually "the answer". For example: Offer supporting evidence such as the definition from a good online dictionary. Contrast this answer with other answers. Whatever would make this "the answer", not merely a suggestion or an idea. – MetaEd Sep 25 '18 at 21:37
  • Doesn't exactly roll of the tongue, does it? Why did you choose "multiplicity" and not "sequence"? – Mari-Lou A Sep 26 '18 at 8:52
  • Seemed more appropriate to me as it does not suggest the events occured in a sequence, but could have occurred in parallel as well. There is no "the answer" to a request for a phrase in the English language - anything can be described in multiple ways. – CrossRoads Sep 26 '18 at 13:07
  • You should add that explanation in your answer, someone might agree with you! – Mari-Lou A Sep 27 '18 at 7:39
1

Here are a few related idioms to consider. Train wreck. Clusterfuck. Comedy of errors. Debacle. Fiasco. Goat rope. Quagmire. This is a professional letter, so I would use quagmire. It would resonate for anyone who read David Halberstam.

0

Black Swan Event

  • an event that is extremely rare and unexpected but has very significant consequences

The problem with black swan events is that very often they are never repeated.

Word story When Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh first saw black swans in Western Australia in the 17th century, Europeans believed that all swans were white, so a black swan seemed an impossibility. The term came to be used for an event that happens even though it seems impossible.

Source: https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/black-swan

See also: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

0

“The stars were aligned,” as H.P. Lovecraft would say, when the time was ripe for some cosmic disaster. Some commenters think, “Due to a rare alignment of the stars,” works better in this context.

  • The question asks for a synonym phrase that can fit the sentence. It makes no sense to say "that was not the case today due to a 'the stars were aligned'." – Chappo Sep 26 '18 at 4:34
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    @Chappo You cannot be serious. – Davislor Sep 26 '18 at 4:44
  • I suggest you carefully re-read the question. If you really want to propose your post as a serious answer rather than a comment, I recommend you consider the OP's suggestion "Please feel free to reword my example sentence in any way you would like" to show how your "synonym" provides a fitting solution. – Chappo Sep 26 '18 at 4:57
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    @Chappo No one in the real world is only interested in a fill-in-the-blanks answer. It is absurd to read the question that narrowly outside a quiz show. "Due to the stars aligning" or "due to a rare alignment of the stars" obviously work just fine. You might as well object that the phrase must start with "a," not "an" or "the." – Davislor Sep 26 '18 at 5:15
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    One of those downvotes was mine because "the stars were aligned" sounds fortuitous, a serendipity sequence of happy coincidences. It doesn't sound negative unlike "perfect storm". But "a rare alignment of stars" is a better solution, so DV retracted. The objections were not ridiculous btw, but matter of opinion, I guess. – Mari-Lou A Sep 26 '18 at 9:26

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