Thursday, October 22, 2020

Language Of Confusion: Disasters

Disasters, AKA life constantly these days.
Disaster showed up sometime in the late sixteenth century, coming from the Middle French désastre, which is from the Italian disastro, which of course is just disaster. The prefix dis- means ill here, and astro literally means star. A disaster is an ill (as in bad luck) star.
Catastrophe actually showed up a bit earlier, in the early sixteenth century, although back then it meant “reversal of what is expected”, generally referring to the turning point in a drama. It actually didn’t mean a disaster until 1748! Catastrophe is from the classical Latin catastropha, a turning point or denouement, and is from the Greek katastrophe, which could mean a disaster as well as a sudden end. It’s from the verb katastrephein, to destroy, overturn, or trample on, a mix of kata, down, while strephein is turn, from the Proto Indo European strebh, wind or turn. A catastrophe is a down turn!
Speaking of cata, cataclysm showed up in the early-mid seventeenth century, where it meant a deluge or flood, particularly in relation to the bible. It’s from the French cataclysme, which is from the classical Latin cataclysmos, which again, means a deluge. That’s of course from the Greek kataklysmos, which also just means deluge. Like I said before, kata means down, and the rest is from klyzein, to deluge. A cataclysm is deluging down on you. Klyzein is also from the Proto Indo European kleue-, to wash or clean. Weirdly enough that’s also the origin word for cloaca.
Calamity showed up in the early fifteenth century meaning damage or a state of adversity, then meaning a great misfortune about a century later. It’s from the Old French calamite, from the classical Latin calamitatem, disaster. It’s origins before that aren’t really known. People used to think it’s related to the Latin calamus, straw, in the sense of damage to crops being bad, but now it’s mostly thought that’s not true. Thought B is that it’s related to incolumis, which means uninjured, but there’s no evidence of that either. Basically, no one knows where calamity is from and there are no good guesses.
Finally today, tragedy showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning a play/work with an unhappy ending, and a tragedy in general in the sixteenth century. It was from the Old French tragedie, from the classical Latin tragedia, tragedy, and that one’s also from Greek, the word tragodia, also just tragedy. And here’s where things get weird. See, in Greek, the word is a mix of two words, tragos and oide. Oide means ode or song, yeah, makes sense, and tragos means tragedy… or possibly goat. Yeah. One theory is that tragedy means “goat song”, because a “satyr play” (as in, satyrs are goats) was a happier play than a traditional tragedy. I mean, the goat connection might not even be real, but still. Wow.
Online Etymology Dictionary
Google Translate
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
Encyclopaedia Britannica
University of Ottawa, Canada


  1. So when the BeeGees sing Tragedy, they are really saying Goat Song? Well that adds a new layer to that song!

  2. I saw a wonderful satyr play once. It was hilarious, not a tragedy at all. I think it was called The Trackers of Oxyrhincus.

  3. Considering how people of that era used astrology, ill star makes sense for disaster.

  4. All these have showed up first around the same time. I wonder if there is some reason associated with those times.


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