Mind your language

We are in a perfect storm of perfect storms

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

When my husband’s whisky glass fell off the little table next to his chair on to next door’s cat, which was on an unauthorised visit, provoking it to make a speedy exit, en route scratching the postman, who had for a change that afternoon rung the bell to deliver a parcel instead of putting a little card through the door saying we were out, it was, my husband averred, a perfect storm. He really meant he had fallen asleep and let his copy of The Spectator fall.

We are in a perfect storm of perfect storms. ‘A perfect storm has arisen due to a combination of factors relating to Brexit and the pandemic,’ wrote someone in the Times about the petrol shortage. I fear the tempest will blow more perfectly yet.

I had thought that perfect storm derived from Sebastian Junger’s novel The Perfect Storm, published in 1997 and made into a film in 2000. But the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed an example of the term used by American meteorological folk in 1936.

It is more than putting the adjective perfect with the noun storm. Someone found that Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, had written of ‘a perfect storm of sympathy’. There, perfect is equivalent to absolute. That is rather like Dickens, or David Copperfield, observing that Miss Murdstone ‘was a perfect Lark in point of getting up’. You’d hardly expect to find her in a book called The Perfect Lark. The Spectator’s own late columnist P.J. Kavanagh played on meanings of perfect in the title of his memoir The Perfect Stranger, about his young wife, who died. It is possible to discover that an absolute stranger is perfect.

God is perfect in having perfections such as goodness and beauty in an infinite degree, yet that is not what is meant by the Book of Common Prayer’s Athanasian Creed calling Jesus Christ ‘Perfect God, and perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting’. It means ‘completely God and completely man’.

As the cherry of annoyance on the cake of cliché, I find that people are pronouncing the second syllable of perfect like that in prefect, instead of in the British way, as if spelt perfict. The change is perfectly unnecessary.

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