Is there a term for the kind of elaborating progression seen in children's songs such as "The Old Lady Who Swallowed..." and "There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea"? I can almost dredge one up, but I can't quite express it.

I'm trying to relate this metaphorically to a situation where one is in a hole and keeps digging -- a cascade of complications that accumulate when trying to solve what starts as a simple problem.

I could always make a direct reference to a song, like "It seemed simple enough at first, but before long we were swallowing a frog to catch a fly", but I was hoping to find a word or phrase that conveys the idea without invoking a nursery rhyme.

ETA - a suggested dupe gets only a bit toward the issue: I'm looking for something that reflects the compounding. Not just one bad thing into another, but a bad thing that you try to fix, only to introduce another, probably worse thing, and again, and so on. Out of the frying pan into the fire, out of the fire into the furnace, out of the furnace into...

FETA - I got a suggestion from someone not in this clubhouse that fits well and might spark more discussion. "The situation snowballed", invoking the accumulation of a runaway downhill tumble. Not an avalanche, just a growing problem.

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    Does this answer your question? Are there any expressions that describe going from a bad to a worse situation?
    – cigien
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 22:00
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    @cigien - That's a bit similar, but I'm looking for something that reflects the compounding. Not just one bad thing after another, but a bad thing that you try to fix, only to introduce another, probably worse thing, and again, and so on.
    – Jim Mack
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 1:11
  • I really do not understand the idea. Yet, I am a good reader.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 16:52
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    I think your "snowballed" is it. Nitpicks are that it can be for non-problems, and doesn't always mean you made it worse, but definitions have a definite bias for what you want: it's a problem with growing scope due to your actions. Quick check: "she ate a frog to cure her fly problem and it snowballed from there" sounds very natural. Commented May 7, 2021 at 19:12
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    I have no idea what Estimated Time of Arrival and Greek cheese have to do with the comments. If you're editing, then the edit history is available. Just edit the question so it's complete in itself (but don't invalidate any existing answers in the process).
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented May 8, 2021 at 16:37

10 Answers 10


"The house that Jack built" is said to be a cumulative tale

In a cumulative tale, sometimes also called a chain tale, action or dialogue repeats and builds up in some way as the tale progresses. With only the sparest of plots, these tales often depend upon repetition and rhythm for their effect, and can require a skilled storyteller to negotiate their tongue-twisting repetitions in performance.

Wikipedia also lists "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as further examples.

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    Another wiki article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumulative_song
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 22:12
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    Yes, that describes the songs. I was trying to use the songs as a metaphor for a live situation -- the piling on, the accumulation of fixes that require fixes, and so on.
    – Jim Mack
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 1:16
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    "Twelve Days of Christmas" isn't the same scenario, as the later days do not directly depend on the previous ones, it's cumulative but not connected. In the "Lady Who Swallowed a Fly", it's starting with a problem, then creating another problem to solve the first, and then another bigger one to solve that, etc. Commented May 7, 2021 at 20:01

In folk music circles songs like this (for example The Twelve Days of Christmas) are known as "cumulative songs" or "accumulating chorus songs". Accumulating chorus songs are slightly different from "There was an Old Lady" in that they tend to have verses each of which stands on its own but adds its item to the chorus which thus grows longer as the song progresses.

Not all accumulating chorus songs are traditional, or even that old. The late Keith Marsden wrote one called Doin' The Manch in, I think the 1970s. It involves a lad being taken by his father, on his eighteenth birthday, up the roughly mile to a mile and a half of Manchester Road in Bradford to drink a pint in every one of the twenty seven pubs that used to line it. Most verses add a pub or two to the chorus and one adds the names of a two breweries into the mix.

It's well worth a listen, find it on You tube

  • Amusing, thanks. If I could find a way to work a pub crawl into the mix, I'd be set. (-:
    – Jim Mack
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 13:53

A vicious cycle / circle:

A sequence of reciprocal cause and effect in which two or more elements intensify and aggravate each other, leading inexorably to a worsening of the situation.


  • Not bad, but it doesn't capture the accumulative, expanding aspect I'm trying to convey.
    – Jim Mack
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 13:52
  • @JimMack Yes it does. That's the whole idea of 'vicious' - it gets worse and worse.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 17:41
  • @Mitch - on reflection, you're right. It does address that point.
    – Jim Mack
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 18:11
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    The cycle part seems to rule it out: "two or more events aggravate each other". The Q seems to be about more and newer things being dragged in to make it worse. Commented May 7, 2021 at 19:01

A term that may fit is a cascading failure:

A cascading failure is a process in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of one or few parts can trigger the failure of other parts and so on. (Wikipedia)

An example would be one component overheating, which overloads a cooling system, in turn causing other components to overheat which would then trigger failures in items depending on those components, and so on.

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    This is great except for how it happens. A cascading failure happens all on it's own. The Q is about, I think, when active action only makes larger-in-scope worseness Commented May 7, 2021 at 19:03
  • @OwenReynolds I agree - I think this would best fit the question when the mistaken "solutions" are caused by the earlier failures in some way. An inexperienced technician making a mistake due to the stress of the situation could be a part of a cascading failure, for example, but a random passerby making things worse by "helping" might not be.
    – Shmeeku
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 19:52

There is the law of holes with the first being "when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging." Since you mention it in your question, that's the adage about the action. It's common enough to say "Remember the law of holes," or for your example, "It seemed simple enough at first, but before long we forgot about the law of holes."

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    Thanks, but I don't feel confident that most people would know this as a named law. In any case, it covers only one aspect of the issue. I really want to emphasize the compounding, the accumulation. Like the fly to the frog to the cat to the goat, it gets worse the harder you try.
    – Jim Mack
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 1:28

I appreciate this isn't the specific term you're looking for (which I think probably doesn't exist in English, unfortunately), but I would naturally just describe such a situation by saying everything we did made things worse, or every fix just introduced new issues (which sounds quite techn-jargony) or similar.

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    Yes, that does recap what I'm trying to describe in a less prosaic, less literal way. You may be right that prosaic is the only way to go here.
    – Jim Mack
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 13:50

This doesn't exactly capture the compounding nature of the situation, but I came across the term "solution-caused problem" used in an article by a consulting firm to describe problems caused by the solutions to different problems.

Alone it might not fully express the idea, so I would add something about the recurrent nature of the problems, like a loop:

We are stuck in a nightmare loop of solution-caused problems.

  • It's amusing that the referenced article doesn't mention any "problems caused by solutions proposed by consultants." But hey, if someone doesn't believe they are omniscient and infallible, consultancy is the wrong career choice for them :)
    – alephzero
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 19:07
  • @alephzero Lol, exactly. I stopped reading the article after the first paragraph or so, but I felt it was necessary to include the link to show I wasn't just making stuff up.
    – ColleenV
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 19:26

I would use "compounding the problem" but as OP has used "compounding" a couple of times that probably isn't what they are looking for. But I still wanted to suggest it for other people.


I've heard plumbers complain of "snake joint jobs." You go to change a washer, but the screw strips, so you have to replace the core, but there's too much calcium, so you need a new faucet, and when you loosen the nuts, the pipe breaks off inside the wall, so you get the water shut off, but not before a good amount of water damage happens. Then you tear into the sheetrock....

  • That's definitely a cumulative problem. But then, they charge by the hour, so... (-:
    – Jim Mack
    Commented May 8, 2021 at 17:07

The common phrase is just

bad to worse

We kept going from bad to worse!

It doesn't explicitly have the "cumulative" you're after but that's about the closest.

Another one that you hear is "we just kept digging ourselves deeper and deeper in a hole..."

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