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Why a catastrophe hasn’t always been bad news

The non-stop coverage this past month (at least in the United States) of the negotiations on raising the debt limit has propelled a number of words into prominence. Words and phrases such as ceiling, default, and credit rating have all received prime real estate in many newspapers.

Along with these words, used largely in an economic sense, there has been increased use of more dire terms, when various and sundry pundits warn of the consequences of failing to raise this debt ceiling. Among these, the word catastrophe looms large. Whether or not the actions or inaction of Congress results in a catastrophe is of little concern, at least in a lexicographic sense; what is more interesting is that catastrophe, as a word, has had a remarkably successful second act.

A different kind of catastrophe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has been in use in English since at least 1579, although the initial meaning was somewhat different than how we generally use it today. Catastrophe at first was used to simply refer to the final act of some event, the denouement. Shortly after this it took on the extended meaning of (as Samuel Johnson humorously defined it) “a conclusion generally unhappy”. It was not until the middle of the 18th century that catastrophe took on the meaning of sudden calamitous disaster.

The roots of this word are ultimately from ancient Greek – kata (down) and strephein (to turn). Strephein has provided the basis for a number of other words in English – most of them (with the notable exception of apostrophe) have failed to gain prominence.

The extended family

Epistrophe (defined as ‘the repetition of a word at the end of successive clauses or sentences’) had a brief period of vogue when the great jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk wrote a song so titled that he would use to close every concert. Nevertheless, there are probably not many people today who would know what it means, except for those who are familiar with jazz history or the study of rhetoric.

There are other lesser-known cousins which haven’t been accorded the privilege of being immortalized in song; among the fellow descendants of strephein that never really entered mainstream vocabulary are words such as strobili, geostrophic, and anastrophe.

While the long-term consequences of the crisis (a word that originally referred to the turning point in the progression of a disease) remain unclear, what is evident is that, no matter what happens, it will indeed be a catastrophe of one definition or another.