Thursday, July 22, 2010

When Things Go Badly…

The leaking BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has been consistently referred to in the news as a “disaster.”  No argument there.  But English has several words besides disaster that can indicate a state of affairs less than ideal, including fiasco, calamity, catastrophe, cataclysm, and the ever popular tragedy.  Although sometimes used interchangeably, these words all have their own nuanced meanings. 

Disaster, originally an astrological word rooted in the Latin astrum (“star”), meant an ill portent caused by the misalignment of the stars or planets. Nowadays, it’s an all-purpose word for any sudden and extraordinary misfortune of whatever kind.  The Gulf oil spill certainly qualifies.

A fiasco, from the Italian word for “bottle,” literally meant making a bottle, that is failing completely to achieve expected results—almost always with an element of the ridiculous.  It is especially applied to theatrical performances and other pretentious activities.

A calamity, from the Latin calamitas and the Greek kolobos (“harmed, mutilated”) is a great misfortune that causes extensive harm—perhaps loss of power by ESPN in the final moments of the World Cup would qualify as a calamity. 

It is similar to a catastrophe, which comes from Greek kata + strephein (“overturn”) and means a misfortune that changes the fundamental order of things, with a note of finality. Imagine, for example, American Idol going off the air permanently. Catastrophe, in fact, was originally a show-biz term, referring to the denouement in a drama.

Cataclysm from the Greek kataklysmos (“flood”) is a violent physical event—earthquake, hurricane, flood, very large lightning bolts hurled by Zeus—that alters the earth’s surface.

And, finally, our old friend tragedy, which is trotted out by the news media anytime someone dies of whatever cause.  It’s another term from Greek drama—originally tragoidia, meaning “goat-song,” so called from the goatskins that were worn as costumes (pre-Bob Mackie) by early tragedians.  The story they told was always about a noble leading character brought to his or her death or some other unpleasant conclusion by a character flaw or an excess of passion—Lindsay Lohan’s tragic incarceration, for example?

You may take your pick of the above terms for disaster and apply any one of them to the gibberish that constitutes the poetic oeuvre of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.  As he is wont to say, “It’s no skin off my elbow.”

            If disaster should befall you, you should bear it with a smile,
            Don’t let tragedy appall you, just keep grinning all the while.
            Turn misfortune into gladness, say that everything’s idyllic.
            You will conquer all the sadness—and be labeled imbecilic.

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