Wednesday, April 3, 2024

RETRO Episode 98: Calm Before the Storm

This week Shauna and Dan take a look at the Calm Before The Storm. Then quickly learn there is SO MUCH MORE to this phrase! Join them on a whimsical adventure to explore the calm before and after the tempest.

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Welcome back to Bunny Trails everyone. Cold open today as we are bringing you a retro episode. Before we jump into it, I want to say thank you to our patrons on Patreon. We are a small but mighty community of people who enjoy the fun phrases that English can give us and have just enough spare at the end of each month’s budget to make sure Bunny Trails can stay free for everyone who doesn’t have means to help support the show. And I genuinely cannot say thank you enough to our Patrons. Special shout out to Pat Rowe and our top spot, Mary Halsig Lopez. 

Now I’ll get you to the show, which originally aired February 3, 2021, Calm Before the Storm.

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 98: Calm Before the Storm

Record Date: January 31, 2021

Air Date: February 3, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Shauna, do you know the phrase in many movies where somebody says something to the effect of “It’s quiet. Too quiet.” which always seems to come just before things just get wildly out of hand in the movie? 

I was thinking about this the other day because it came up in casual conversation… and I have a habit of saying “too quiet” whenever someone says “it’s quiet for some reason”. And then I realized that what we are describing in that situation, without using the phrase, is the idiom “the calm before the storm”. 

So I thought we’d look into that phrase for this week. 


I think the Cambridge Dictionary has the most accessible definition, so I’ll use it:

A quiet or peaceful period before a period during which there is great activity, argument, or difficulty

The OEDs definition included more flowery language that said basically the same thing. But it also noted this phrase started with a different word than “storm”. Any thoughts?


calm before the storm (also tempest) and variants: a period of tranquillity or stability viewed as a precursor to a time of difficulty, upheaval, frenzied activity, etc.

OED - Tempest: A violent storm of wind, usually accompanied by a downfall of rain, hail, or snow, or by thunder. 

It comes from the Latin word for time, which was modified slightly to then mean seasons. And we’ve seen it used in Old English since at least the 1200s to mean the storm. But interestingly,  in the 1300s tempest also seems to have taken on a figurative definition:

OED Tempest: A violent commotion or disturbance; a tumult, rush; agitation, perturbation. 

This would be its use in the phrase tempest in a tea-pot, or storm in a tea-cup

means OED: a great commotion in a circumscribed circle, or about a matter of small or only local importance. A tempest in a tea-pot, or a storm in a tea cup, both have their first attestations, according to the OED, in 1854. I didn’t look anymore into it than that, because I wanted to jump back into calm before the storm, or calm before the tempest, because OED has it arriving much earlier.

1595   Robert Parry in Moderatus, which I saw described as an “Elizabethan romance” x. sig. N  

Wander yet somewhat in these desarts to seeke some aduentures, to see if good fortune will present thee with a calme after so bitter and sharpe a storme.

1602   Christopher Sutton Disce Vivere Dee-scay Vee-Ver-eh  (whic is Latin for “Learn to Live” ix. 192   What is our peace, but a calme before a tempest?

I saw an interesting take on the both of these phrases by Robert South, who was a clergyman of the Church of England. In 1694, in a sermon that was later published in Twelve Sermons Preached Upon Several Occasions, Robert South says, 

Storms and Calms (especially with reference to the State of the Soul) doe always follow one another;..a Calm before a Storm is commonly a Peace of a man's own making; but a Calm, after a Storm, a Peace of God's.

1754  In an almanac by Francis Moore, called  Moore's Vox Stellarum 15   

We may expect..Health and Felicity in general to Mankind: But I fear this something like a Calm before a Storm.

1783   Hugh Blair Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres I. x. 196   

A good man enjoys Tranquillity, in himself; Peace, with others; and Calm, after the storm.

So we are really seeing calm before the storm and calm after the storm both used in the writing of the 1600 and 1700s. Let’s see if that holds throughout the years.

Here’s an example found in an obituary for Lucy Nelson Campbell of Charleston, SC USA.

And this one which is basically giving the update in a series of Tweet-like notes in the:

Here’s one that uses the phrase, “calm after tempest” in an article talking about how being called an “old woman” should be a badge of pride and not an insult.

Here is one from 1898, when the USA was concerned about the prospect of war with Spain, which did happen within a month of this article being published. 

What the USA calls the Spanish-American War didn’t last long, less than 4 months. Here’s one a few days after hostilities ceased.

An interesting note. The Treaty of Paris was officially signed December 10, 1898 which officially ended the war, though hostilities ceased in August. Spain gave up control of Cuba, and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillipine Islands to the USA. The US paid $20 million to Spain for the infrastructure they had already built in those locations, which would be over $627 million today

The Phillipines would gain independence after more wars by the USA and some genuinely shady works by the US government. So, pretty much nothing has changed in the USA. 

Anyway… since pitchers and catchers are reporting for Spring Training in a couple of weeks for Baseball, I wanted to include this one from:

But of course, we have an example of calm after storm from:

This one is referencing the Russo-Japanese War. Which this time the US gets credit for some positive news as President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt helped negotiate a peace after the war, which earned him a Nobel Prize. 

Speaking of Teddy Roosevelt, I found calm after tempest again in a poem written by Marion Smith about the death mask that was made of President Roosevelt by James Earle Fraser on January 6, 1919. It was published in the January 6, 1920 edition of the New York Tribune, which would have been the one-year anniversary of his death.

This was the last time I really found calm after the tempest used in the US newspapers. Both uses of tempest with the phrase I found were in prose, this one in a poem and the previous one I mentioned from 1891 being used in an obituary. Neither were written in the same style that most people would speak. So it’s difficult to know how long the use of “tempest” in place of “storm” would have continued in the common vernacular. But it clearly survived in more formal writing and expressions.

Next up is one I wish I could relate to, as it’s been a bit chilly in South Central Kansas this past week. 

So overall, calm before the storm and calm after the storm both seem to be in contemporary use throughout their entire history. After the break,  we’ll see how these phrases are being used nowadays.

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

There are a variety of songs called “Calm Before The Storm”, including Sheena Easton in 1981 , Eddie Money in 1986, Paul Brandt in 1996, Fall Out Boy in 2003, Whiskey Myers in 2011, Sarah Ross in 2015, TRUCKFIGHTERS in 2016, and COMO featuring verNation in 2020. 

I did see a song Calm After the Storm Song by The Common Linnets, which was done in 2014 for Eurovision Song Contest.

Calm Before the Tempest is an instrumental done by the Yelena Eckemoff Trio in 2008. 

It’s also a 2017 album by the musician Tempest Styles. 

And as honorable mention, a variety of artists have done songs called The Storm Before The Calm. 

But in the song category I’d say Calm BEFORE the storm wins out as the most popular usage today.

I went to to find TV, movies, and films...

There is a documentary called Calm Before The Storm: Under Review 1969 - 1971 about David Bowie. It came out in 2012 and follows some of Bowie's formative years. 

I also found a 2014 short film called Calm After The Storm directed by Anna Maria Aiken, which is about a human coping with reality and the many unpredicted obstacles life presents. Filmed on location in Rhodes, Greece. Shot entirely on Apple iPad 2.

And though there were several TV show episodes called Calm before or after the storm, I didn’t find anything with tempest, though.

So we’ll call it a draw here. 

And I popped over to Goodreads for books.

Calm Before the Storm brought up books by Dave Hayes, Constance Barker, N.J. Kuhr, Larissa Ione, Angelica Kate, Ryan Mullaney, Kelley York, and more. 

Calm After the Storm brought up books by Mya O’Malley, Nicole Hill, and Kiyoshi Tanaka. There was also Cerebral Palsy: A Story: Finding the Calm After the Storm by Ilana Estelle and A Poetic Calm After the Desert Storm by Ron Hansen. 

Nothing for tempest again. So on this one there were definitely more in the “before” category, so it wins. But I think the showing from “after” shows it still has a strong usage as well. 

A quick search for our phrase in the “art” category says we don’t have enough time to cover all the works you can find, but I’ll just say both before and after are heavily represented. Most were some variant of a literal storm. I love watching storms roll in over the Kansas flint hills. It’s possibly one of the most beautiful and soothing experiences I’ve ever seen. But I’m getting off track…

There were a couple of calm before/after the tempest art works as well, so I’m just gonna give all our variants a medal on art. 

And just to see how a snippet of the English speaking world might be using the phrase, I jumped onto Twitter, that trainwreck that we just can’t look away from. 

Calm before the storm had tons of results, with most regarding weather, coronavirus, or stock markets. But I think those last two are more a product of when I did the search. 

Calm before the tempest seemed to have quite the popular usage as well. Many people used it in common speaking without the post being specifically about the idiomatic use itself. 

Same results with after on both...

Wrap up...

So after looking at all of these things, it appears what started in my research as calm before the storm, is better to be recognized as the calm before or after the storm, and in not quite equal measure, calm before or after the tempest. But tempest is definitely used frequently enough as to give it some ownership on the phrase as a whole. 



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**Dan - Start the Outro Music***

Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

Additional resources not used

From the OED - Calm After the Storm/Tempest

[?c1225  (▸?a1200)    Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. (1972) 276   Iblescet beo þu lauerd. þe makest stille efter storm.]

1595   R. Parry Moderatus x. sig. N   Wander yet somewhat in these desarts to seeke some aduentures, to see if good fortune will present thee with a calme after so bitter and sharpe a storme.

1640   R. Brathwait Two Lancs. Lovers xxx. 238   Canst thou expect so present a calme after so rough a tempest?

1783   H. Blair Lect. Rhetoric I. x. 196   A good man enjoys Tranquillity, in himself; Peace, with others; and Calm, after the storm.

1835   Ladies' Compan. Oct. 251/2   Dropping down, her eyes closed in a deep slumber. So comes the calm after the tempest.

1886   J. W. Wells Three Thousand Miles through Brazil I. ii. 53   After a while we settle down into a steady march; it is the calm after the storm.

1912   M. Fisher Kirstie xix. 284   How exquisite this calm after the tempest!

2004   F. Miller tr. F. Härén Idea Bk. 186   You meet again a week later and see what unexpected, unusual ideas have been sown in the calm after the storm.

From the OED - Calm Before the Storm/Tempest

1754   Moore's Vox Stellarum 15   We may expect..Health and Felicity in general to Mankind: But I fear this something like a Calm before a Storm.

1815   J. McQueen Campaigns 312   A deep silence seemed to overspread France... The silence which then prevailed, was the calm before the storm.

1914   B. H. Clark Continental Drama of To-day 204   Everything is so apparently calm for the remainder of the act. We feel instinctively that this is the calm before the tempest.

1961   A. Wesker Kitchen 34   There is less activity in the kitchen now, the calm before the storm.

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