Stormy Petrels:

According to this article Elliott Moreton categorize particular group of words as "Stormy Petrels".

A stormy petrel, also known as a storm petrel, is an Atlantic seabird (also found in the Mediterranean). The term "stormy petrel" in general usage has come to refer to a harbinger of trouble; perhaps people believed that the bird was seen just before a storm. Sometime in the late '80s, Elliott Moreton came up with a category of words which can't be used except in the company of specific other words; having heard the word "petrel" only in the company of the word "stormy," he decided to call such items "stormy petrels." As it happens, there is such a thing as a petrel which isn't stormy, but the term was a catchy one so it stuck.

Examples of Stormy Petrels:


  2. All DURANCE is VILE


Note: In example 3, the word recriminations do occur alone. Example taken from Oxford dictionary:

Meaning of Recriminations: An accusation in response to one from someone else.

Usage: "there are no tears, no recriminations."

Strong Collocation:

Strong collocations are when particular words can collocate with very few words. These two words are usually fixed and restricted.

Examples of Strong Collocation(Check strong collocation):

  1. Curly Hair

  2. Whisk an egg

So, what is the difference between "Stormy Petrels" and "Strong Collocation"? Or Are "Stormy Petrels" nothing, but "Strong Collocation"?

  • 4
    Since we can say "curly fries" and "curly straw" and "whisk someone off their feet" and "whisk the batter," those clearly aren't stormy petrels. I mean, those are just examples I came up with off the top of my head. I'm sure there are many, many more. That would indicate to me that a "strong collocation" is just words that are very often used together, meaning they have a strong relationship, but not an exclusive relationship like with stormy petrels such that they never appear without the other. Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 20:21
  • 1
    Just for nerd's sake, there are quite a few petrel varieties that are not 'stormy'. Cape, snow, Antarctic, giant, are some. So 'petrel' is not a cranberry-like lexeme. But a linguistic 'stormy petrel' is still a coherent meaning label.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 16:34
  • 1
    But to your question about if a 'stormy petrel' means 'a strong correlation' , the answer is given by the passage you quoted, it is a strict implication. 'only in the company of '.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 16:39
  • 1
    @Mitch If "fissile material" isn't a stormy petrel, then the article in the link lists many items as "stormy petrels" that aren't stormy petrels. (Bitter recriminations would be included.) The author later on draws a distinction between "strong" and "weak" stormy petrels which means these stormy petrels are essentially strong collocations and exceptions can exist. That said, I doubt whether strong ones as defined above exist. Even examples like "short shrift" have exceptions ("no shrift at all.") Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 20:46
  • 1
    @TaliesinMerlin 1) That site explains that 'weak' means that maybe the word is common in its other semantic entires (or parts of speech, eg 'snub' in 'snub nose' is a stormy petrel, even though you can snub someone in many ways. 2) the author uses 'can' 'never' and 'certainty'. So there are a few in the list that don't fit, they even admit 'petrel' is not a stormy petrel.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 20:56

2 Answers 2


Stormy petrels and strong collocations are concepts that are similar, but the author's insistence on strictly defining stormy petrels as words that have a specific collocation makes it more restrictive than a strong collocation. In other words, a stormy petrel is a strong collocation, but a strong collocation is not a stormy petrel.

Let me highlight the common phrasing in both definitions:

(Stormy petrels) Sometime in the late '80s, Elliott Moreton came up with a category of words which can't be used except in the company of specific other words

Strong collocations are when particular words can collocate with very few words.

As written, the only ambiguity is between "specific other words" (which could suggest exclusivity: maybe only the specified word(s) can be used) and "very few words" (which allows for a small subset of collocations and variation). The source on stormy petrels clarifies later on that it really is being strict about no other collocations being in use:

We sometimes make a distinction between the rare "strong" stormy petrel, which can never occur without the associated word or phrase, and the more common "weak" stormy petrel, which can never occur as a particular part of speech without the companion word or phrase.

A Stormy Petrel is a phrase P containing a word W such that W cannot occur anywhere but in P.

That is more restrictive than a strong collocation, which merely requires one word to collocate with very few other words. In a stormy petrel, no other collocation can exist! As a result, this definition is self-defeating, since stormy petrel itself doesn't meet the rigorous definition of the term. Nor do other words I've tested. For instance, COCA shows that shrift is preceded by short most times (295 results) but also has 13 other results. It is not a stormy petrel. The same can easily be found for durance, meemies, and recriminations.

These examples and similar searches invite a hypothesis: no true stormy petrel exists as defined, and if one does, it is because the word has not been documented with another collocation, not because no other collocation can be used. Strong collocations, on the other hand, do exist, and tend to describe the examples listed for stormy petrel.

  • Sorry, forgot to appreciate your efforts. Thanks! Yes, it is true that it seems stormy petrels sounds like a strong collocation. But mystery is still shrouded with confusion.
    – Ubi.B
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 15:48

Not all meemies are screaming:


US slang

1 In plural With the. Originally: a state of drunkenness, delirium tremens. In later use: hysterics. Usually in "to have (also get) the screaming meemies".

2 A hysterical person. rare.


I have occasionally read/heard "meemies" used without "screaming".

As for "durance", virtually all uses in the past 100 years have been references to the Durance river Hannibal crossed. But prior to that it was used to refer to imprisonment and (by Shakespeare, as least) a cloth used to make durable documents. (Shakey made puns on the two meanings.)

From the magazine Bentley's miscellany, 1845:

But for a violent fever which assailed him, upon release from durance, he would certainly have been present as her shameless suitor at the festivity of the Town Hall upon the New Year's Eve.

Even though it's not really French, I suspect that "durance vile" has survived (to the extent it has) because it sounds French and hence hoity-toity.

It's not clear that there is any English word (other than perhaps certain proper nouns) that is never used except in the company of another certain word (or small group of words).

For this reason it's not clear that an absolutely "stormy petrelish" stormy petrel exists. Rather the idiom simply represents an extreme case of "strong collocation".

  • the Oxford example you used also contains "Screaming meemies" :/ Secondly, my question is "what is the difference between "Stormy Petrels" and "Strong Collocation"? Or Are "Stormy Petrels" nothing, but "Strong Collocation?"
    – Ubi.B
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 3:17
  • In other words, "screaming meemies" is a strong collocation but isn't a stormy petrel :-) Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 4:03
  • If I, personally, never use "meemies" except in the combination "screaming meemies", then is it a story petrel for me?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 13:42
  • I still haven't seen quoted any natural sounding sentences (from the wild) where 'meemies' aren't screaming.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 16:29
  • @Mitch - I found at least one instance of "gives me the meemies".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 16:54

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