Worst case scenario: help wanted

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Fri Nov 16 00:05:26 UTC 2001

In a message dated 11/15/2001 9:24:18 AM Eastern Standard Time,
AAllan at AOL.COM writes:

>  I am a public librarian and a patron is looking for the origin of the
>  phrase "worst case scenario."  We are thinking it has a military or legal
>  origin but none of my phrase dictionaries lists this.

This is a hard one.

The OED 2nd Edition (CD-ROM version) says that "scenario" is an Italian term
originally used in English (first citation 1878) to mean an outline giving
particulars of a play, ballet, novel, opera, story, movie, etc.  The first
non-theater/film/literature citation in OED2 is 1923 from of all people P. G.
"I'm in the soup"...I sketched oout the scenario for him.  "What would you
<end quote>
[In my opinion this citation is improperly placed among the
theatrical/literary citations]

For the military use of "scenario"---"A sketch, outline, or description of an
imagined situation or sequence of events"--- the first citation given is from
Hermann Kahn in "Thinking about Unthinkable" (1962).  This might be a good
place to start looking.

>From personal experience I can tell you that by 1969 in the Pentagon,
specifically in the Army Staff, "scenario" with the above meaning "A
sketch...sequence of events" was a well-established term---so well
established, in fact, that I strongly suspect it had been in use in the
Pentagon well before Kahn used it in 1962.

My own conjecture is that "scenario" and probably "worst-case scenario" are
English translations of German terms.  Why German?  Because Napoleon and some
of his sharper enemies realized that a general's "staff" was not a collection
of mounted couriers but rather a useful tool for planning and executing
strategy.  It was the Prussians who after 1815 were the most aggressive in
turning the "Generalship Staff" (mistranslated into English as "General
Staff", see Walter Millis _Arms and Men_) into an important instrument of
war.  Hence it was most likely the Prussians who elevated "worst case
scenarios" into Standard Operating Procedure.

The 1908 J. J. Graham translation of von Clausewitz's _Vom Kriege_ includes
the phrase "worst case":  (book III chapter IX next to last paragraph "The
moral effects which attend a surprise often convert the worst case into a
good one for the side they favor..."

I hope this is useful for your patron.

         --- James A. Landau

P.S.  from the same Clausewitz translation: book II chapter V:
"Much greater is the evil which lies in the pompous retinue of technical
terms---scientific expressions and metaphors, which these systems carry in
their train, and which like a rabble---like the baggage of an Army broken
away from its Chief---hang about in all directions"

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