Calm Before the Storm – Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are words and phrases that supply a figurative rather than literal meaning to your speech and writing. But idioms can also be very confusing if the audience does not understand them. This is especially true for English language learners using literal translations to further their understanding.

Calm before the storm is a good example of an idiom that offers symbolic detail but can be easily understood through its literal translation when used correctly in context. The calm before the storm derives from what it suggests literally and is easily applied to other scenarios.

Let’s take a look at where the phrase originates from and what it means when used in speech and writing.

What Does Calm Before the Storm Mean?

Calm Before the Storm Origin Meaning

Used figuratively, the phrase calm before the storm means a period of peace that occurs before a time of conflict. It is often a time of unease because one believes that an outbreak of difficulty is imminent.

It can also be used to indicate the peace that occurs before a time of business or work.

For example:

  • The entire family converges on the farm each Christmas season; they arrive tomorrow, so I’m going to spend today enjoying the calm before the storm.
  • “Oh no,” she exclaimed as she pulled me around the corner while watching the instructor walk down the hall, “I knew when she wasn’t in class yesterday, it was the calm before the storm.”
  • When mom gets that look on her face, you know it’s the calm before the storm, and we are fixin’ to get in trouble.

What Are the Origins of Calm Before the Storm?

Calm Before the Storm vs Calm Before the Tempest Ngram
Calm Before the Storm vs. Calm Before the Tempest Usage Trend.

Calm before the storm is probably derived from a bit of seafaring folklore, as a period of calmness is often felt before a storm rolls in. Winds calm, birds stop chirping, and sometimes the air feels heavy.

There is scientific truth behind the phrase’s use; the weather in advance of a storm is indeed often stable because the advancing storm is pulling warm, moist air out of the atmosphere, leaving a vacuum.

The term’s first known use is found in the early 17th-century play, The Dumb Knight, in which a character exclaims,”… but hush, no words; there is calm before the tempest.”

A tempest is a strong storm, and the idiom took hold through the 1700 and 1800s until tempest was replaced by “storm” in Jeremiah Jingle’s book, The Remarks of Jeremiah Jingle, published in 1807. After that period, both were used sporadically in various publications and speeches until the early 1900s, when calm before the storm became more popular than tempest.

Let’s Review

The expression calm before the storm likely derives from the literal calm due to barometric pressures before a storm. This analogy is now used to indicate the period of peace before a conflict or period of busy work.

Its earliest use in this manner is recorded in the 17th century and has since become a popular way to call attention to a quieter time before something happens.