Glossary: Disaster

From Abbadon to wreck, the language of disaster.

By Leopold Froehlich

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Stormy Coast Scene after a Shipwreck, c. 1825. Promised Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Abaddon: Hebrew name for a place of destruction. In Revelation 9:11 Abaddon is king of the locusts and angel of the abyss. By 3rd cent. the name is used for the devil.

accident: “It is fate misnamed.”—Napoleon Bonaparte

al-Nakba: Arabic for “the disaster.” Now refers specifically to displacement of Palestinians after Israel’s independence in 1948.

annihilate: To cause to cease to exist; especially, to kill. From Latin annihilatus, past participle of annihilare, to reduce to nothing. First known use, 1388.

apada: आपदा Hindi for disaster, calamity.

apocalypse: A great disaster; a sudden and bad event that causes fear, loss, or destruction. From Greek apokalypsisapokalyptein, to uncover, per original use to describe the revelations of John of Patmos.

Portmanteaus of Armageddon used by media outlets in the past ten years: carmageddon, swarmageddon, shawarmageddon, snowmageddon, eurogeddon, Obamageddon, Romneygeddon, courtmageddon, debtmageddon, gaymageddon, Goremageddon, heatmageddon, birdmageddon, wordmageddon.

calamity: From French calamité, Latin calamitas, damage, disaster, adversity. Associated with calamus, straw or cornstalk, in ref. to crop damage from hail or mildew. Also, calamity-howler, a person who makes dismal predictions of impending disaster.

cataclysm: A great flood of water, a deluge; esp. the Noachian deluge.

catastrophe: As defined by the insurance industry, a natural or man-made disaster that causes a certain dollar amount—currently set at $25 million—in insured damage.

clusterfuck: A disastrously mishandled situation or undertaking. Also, charlie foxtrot, phonetic alphabet for clusterfuck.

crash: The action of falling to ruin suddenly and violently; spec. sudden collapse or failure of financial undertaking or of mercantile credit. 

debacle: Great disaster or complete failure. From French débâcle, to unbar, a breakup of ice in a river. Hence, figurative meaning of a sudden breaking up, downfall, confused rout, or stampede.


disaster: the unfavorable aspect of a star; “an obnoxious planet.” From French désastre (1564), a misfortune, calamity; des, privative sense implying removal, negation, and astre, “a Starre, a Planet; also, destinie, fate, fortune, hap” (Randle Cotgrave’s 1611 Dict. of French and English Tongues); Latin astrum, Greek ἄστρον, star. Compare Provençal benastre, good fortune, and malastre, ill fortune, and English ill-starred

doomer: A judge; enforcer of laws or judgments, esp. in Anglo-Saxon England. From Old English dóm, Old Germanic dômo, statute, ordinance, lit. that which is put or set up. 

embuggerance: A set of circumstances due partly to unavoidable natural problems, partly to human error. Used by UK Royal Engineers during Falklands War. Also, hobart, from highly organized buggering about regardless of time.

emergency man: In Irish usage, a person employed in special service, such as evictions.

famine bread: Bread made from lichen (e.g., Umbilicaria arctica); in Finland, bread made from the bark of a pine tree (pettuleipä).

fiasco: A complete failure. French, from Italian, fare fiasco, lit. to make a bottle. First known use, c. 1854. The fig. use of far fiasco, in the sense “to break down or fail in performance,” is of obscure origin. 

force majeure: French, superior strength. An event or effect that cannot be reasonably anticipated or controlled; an act of God.

Götterdämmerung: German, twilight of the gods; a collapse (as of a society or regime) marked by catastrophic violence and disorder. 

malefactor: “The chief factor in the progress of the human race.”—Ambrose BierceDevil’s Dictionary 

maxipok: Any outcome that avoids existential disaster; from maximize the probability of an okay outcome.

Based on Google Ngram Viewer, the frequency of the word “mishap” in sources printed between 1800 and 2008, from a database of over 5 million books.

murrain: A plague; a highly contagious disease in cattle and sheep. “There shall be a very grievous murrain.”—Exodus 9:3

obliteration bombing: Heavy bombing intended to destroy a target completely; the opposite of precision bombing (1943).

panic: Collective flight caused by a hysterical belief. From Pan, god of the wild, whose angry voice was so frightening it caused panic (panikon deima) to those who heard it. Also, panolepsia, possessed by an excess of violent emotion.

peril: A state of being exposed to imminent injury, loss, or destruction. “Glory is the fair child of peril.”—Tobias Smollett

ruin: A state of complete destruction. From Middle English ruine, Latin ruinaruere, to rush headlong, fall, collapse. First known use, 12th cent. “Mine is the ruin of the lofty hall, / The falling down of tower and of wall.”—Geoffrey ChaucerCanterbury Tales 

scapegoat: One who is blamed or punished for the sins of others. Erroneously coined in 1530 by William Tyndale to express what he believed to be the literal meaning of Hebrew ăzāzel, mentioned in Leviticus in connection to the sacrifice of a goat on the Day of Atonement. 

shock: First adopted as military term; encounter of an armed force with the enemy in a charge or onset; also, encounter of two jousters charging one another. From Middle Dutch schocken, to jolt. 

snafu: Acronym of “situation normal, all fucked up.” (OED offers fouled up.) British Army used OMFU (ordinary military) and IMFU (imperial military). Also fubar, fucked up beyond all repair or recognition.

tempest: A violent storm of wind, usually accompanied by rain, hail, snow, or thunder. From Old French tempeste, for Latin tempestās, season, weather, storm.

terror: “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”—Edmund Burke

tornado: Probably a bad adaptation (perhaps a blundered spelling) of Spanish tronada, thunderstorm (tronar, to thunder); may derive from an attempt to improve by treatment as derivative of Spanish tornar, to turn, return; compare tornado participle, returned. 

trainwreck: (Med.) A very sick patient who has several medical problems simultaneously and is usually comatose. 

tsunami: The first American use of the word appeared in the September 1896 issue of National Geographic, in a description of a tsunami that struck the northeast coast of Hondo. From tsu plus nami, harbor plus waves. Hiroshima survivors use the word to describe the atomic catastrophe, as if it were a natural disaster. 

typhoon: A violent storm or tempest. One possible form (like Portuguese tufão, tufõe) is Urdu (Persian and Arabic) tūfān, a violent storm, hurricane, tornado, referred to Arabic tāfa, to turn round, but possibly an adoption of Greek τῡϕῶν. Another form is from Chinese tai fung, common dialect forms (as in Cantonese) of ta, big, and fêng, wind. 

Unfallneurose: Accident neurosis. A syndrome whose diagnosis entitled patients to insurance benefits in 1884; this so-called traumatic neurosis spread to almost epidemic proportions throughout Wilhelmine German society until it was legislated out of existence in 1926.

washout: A complete failure (1873).

weiji: 誇샙 Mandarin for crisis; a widespread misconception (repeated by John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Condoleezza Rice) is that the two ideograms represent danger and opportunity

wreck: What remains of something that has suffered ruin, demolishment, waste; the dilapidated, disorganized, or disordered residue or remainder of anything. From Anglo-Norman wrecwrechwrek; Old Norse wrecwrek, from the stem of wrekan, to drive, in the sense of a sea vessel broken by being driven onto rocks.


Explore Disaster, the Spring 2016 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly