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A storm is downgraded to a cliche

July 22, 2003|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

"SARS is a 'perfect storm' of a disease," according to the Los Angeles Times. 50 Cent is the perfect storm of the rap world, proclaims Billboard magazine. Newsweek has designated Jayson Blair, the plagiarizing New York Times reporter, as "journalism's perfect storm."

The war on terrorism is the perfect storm of the airline industry, American recession is the perfect storm of European tourism, conservative politics is the perfect storm of public school orchestras everywhere....

And somewhere, beneath the thunder, you can hear an English professor crying.

"If you stare at a wall long enough, the wall disappears," explains Dan Fineman, a professor of English and comparative literary studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Likewise, a phrase reiterated endlessly loses its original meaning -- and sometimes all meaning whatsoever. It's about "habituation," Fineman says. "Even a complex object, if it doesn't get moved around, becomes status quo."

The term has been around for years already. "The Perfect Storm," the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger, was published in 1997. "The Perfect Storm," the blockbuster movie starring George Clooney, was released in 2000. But "the perfect storm" is still gathering force. In the last year, the New York Times printed it 11 times, the Chicago Tribune 47 times, the Washington Post 54 times -- and the Los Angeles Times 65 times.

We can trace the term's origin to a certain Boston scientist, on a certain Sunday afternoon in October 1991. Bob Case, then a deputy meteorologist with the National Weather Service, gathered breathlessly with his colleagues around their instruments and computer monitors.

What they observed was a meeting of storm systems 1,000 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. A typical "northeaster" off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, was on a collision course with Hurricane Grace. While both were unremarkable as solo phenomena, the cold winds propelling the northeaster, combined with moist, warm air that Grace had picked up off Bermuda, promised to ignite a Molotov cocktail on the high seas.Meanwhile, cub journalist Sebastian Junger weathered the tempest from his home in Gloucester, Mass. "This enormous storm came through and trashed most of New England," Junger says. "It was all around us. It almost blew the house down."

Having recently been injured while working as "a tree climber," Junger was considering "writing about dangerous work," he says. Then, he heard that a local swordfishing boat, the Andrea Gail, had gone down in the maelstrom. It was a -- dare we say, perfect? -- crossroads of adventure, human interest and tragedy.

Case, since retired, had spent his "entire career trying to eliminate meteorological jargon in speaking with the press," he says. Explaining science to laypeople is always, of course, a delicate balance between not dumbing down too much but simplifying technical jargon just enough. Case's biggest challenge was not forecasting and following the storm but rather relaying his findings to the press.

Junger was "just another reporter," Case recalls, but their conversations would send reverberations through the English language for years to come.

There were many situational characteristics that had to fall into place, Case explains. "Had to have the night's cold air coming out of Canada....The systems had to mesh at the right time.... The moisture had to be available from the dying hurricane. It was the combination of extremely cold air and warm air. Combined with the final kicker, all the moisture influx. Like throwing gasoline on a fire."

Neither man will take credit for what came next.

"Sebastian came up with it," Case says.

"He claims I did," Junger says, "but in my notes, he says it."

Junger's article stretched into a book. It was originally titled "The Storm." Given that people were killed, he says, "the phrase 'the perfect storm' ... seemed tasteless, but the idea of using it grew on me."

With publication of the book, the phrase came back to haunt Case. "Unfortunately, 'the perfect storm' got misconstrued," he says. He began getting calls from meteorologist peers telling him, "No, it wasn't the biggest. The storm of '62 was worse."

"But that was never the idea," Case says, still adamant after all these years. "This wasn't the biggest, wasn't the worst, wasn't the most deadly. It's not even in the top 10. It was a unique situation and took an atmosphere that had the perfect elements in space and time to occur."

When the movie came out, Case was inundated. "Everybody has their 15 minutes," he says. "I got an extra five."

Junger, too. Nowadays, "if I meet someone and they ask what I do," he says, "I can't even bring myself to admit I wrote the book. I really try to avoid any relation to it."

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