What Is the Domino Effect? – Meaning & Definition

Photo of author

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.

The game of dominoes is an old one, requiring quick observational skills and strategic planning. But if you ask a child to play, chances are they will want to do it differently.

Although dominoes are meant to be a game of matching, standing the tiles upright in a row creates a fun ripple effect after you knock the first one down into the next. Cascading dominoes has become a popular way to showcase cause and effect and is a game unto itself. And more recently, it has become an analogy to describe not only the physical falling of domino tiles but also certain societal behaviors or events.

Analogies are an excellent way to add detail to an explanation and can help people understand the bigger picture. To do so, however, you need to first understand the context.

What Is the Meaning of the Domino Effect?

Grammarist Article Graphic V5 5

The domino effect describes a situation in which one event triggers another similar event and then another until a cascade of events occurs – all because of the first precipitating event. The image is that of a pile of dominoes lined up, standing on end. Knocking over the first domino causes it to knock over the second domino, and so on.

Domino effect is an American idiom that has its roots in the Cold War and the consequent spread of Communism throughout Asia and Eastern Europe. An idiom is a word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal meaning, and its use can help add clarity for an audience.

Synonyms for Domino Effect

To help you better understand how the term can be used, consider the following synonyms:

  • Ripple effect
  • Cause and effect
  • Chain of events
  • A casual sequence of events
  • Knock-on effect

What Are the Origins of the Term Domino Effect?

Domino Effect Ngram
Entry of Domino Effect into the English Language

The term domino effect stems from a political idea formed by an American journalist named Joseph Alsop, which he called the falling domino theory. This idea states that once Communism is allowed to take over a country, other small countries around it are more likely to become Communists.

Eisenhower, president at the time that Alsop was writing his political column, was asked about America’s decision to offer aid to the South Vietnamese government, and he cited the falling domino principle during a press conference to help explain the way Communism would spread from one country to another if not stopped.

Before long, reporters referred to this idea as the domino effect. Today, the idiom domino effect is used to describe any situation in which one small trigger may start a larger cascade of events, not just a political scenario.

Using Domino Effect in Sentences

Although its roots are derived from the politics of the Cold War, the domino effect can be used to describe the continuation of any series of events stemming from just one action.

  • If our soccer team wins against their biggest rivals, it can create a domino effect of wins that will lead them to state playoffs.
  • All it takes is just one spark or idea to create a domino effect of goodwill within a community.
  • When a student sees their own abilities pay off, it creates a domino effect of intrinsic motivation leading to the ownership of future potential and success.

Let’s Review

The domino effect is a figurative use of the cascading effect that setting domino tiles one edge in a row creates when knocked over. It is used to describe the spread of an idea or events from one initial action.

It came into use when a journalist used it to describe the spread of Communism during the Cold War and was picked up by President Eisenhower in a press conference. It then made the idiom more widely used when the media began to refer to it in their coverage of the events occurring in Asia at the time.

Today, it is used in more than just a political manner.