A maelstrom is a powerful whirlpool. A luckless ship might go down in one, and conflicting ocean currents might cause one. These days, you're more likely to hear maelstrom used metaphorically to describe disasters where many competing forces are at play.

When an economy or a government fails, the situation is often described as a maelstrom. Following some precipitous event, all the forces at play — banks, governments, consumers — are trying as hard as they can to protect themselves. This creates a maelstrom — a perfect storm, so to speak — that drags any potential for rescue down with it. Maelstrom comes from an obsolete Dutch phrase meaning "whirling stream."

Definitions of maelstrom
  1. noun
    a powerful circular current of water (usually the result of conflicting tides)
    synonyms: vortex, whirlpool
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    (Greek mythology) a ship-devouring whirlpool lying on the other side of a narrow strait from Scylla
    type of:
    current, stream
    a steady flow of a fluid (usually from natural causes)
  2. noun
    a violent commotion or disturbance
    synonyms: storm, tempest
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