Friday, 28 February 2014

Catastrophe - A Real Bummer

A young Japanese girl cries after dropping her ice-cream
This photo breaks my heart every time I look at it.
(photo by Big Ben in Japan)


Noun. Mid-16th century.
[Latin catastropha from Greek katastrophe overturning, sudden turn, from katastrephein, formed as CATA- + strephein turn.]

1 The dénouement of a play, especially a tragedy;
the final resolution of a novel etc. M16

2(a) A disastrous conclusion; overthrow, ruin, calamitous fate. L16

2(b) obsolete. The buttocks. jocular. rare (Shakespeare). Only in L16

3(a) A revolutionary event. L17

3(b) GEOLOGY. (An event causing) a sudden upheaval or discontinuity in the stratigraphic record. M19

4 A sudden or widespread or noteworthy disaster.; an extreme misfortune. M18

catastrophic adj. of or pertaining to a catastrophe; disastrous, dreadful. M19
catastrophical adj. = CATASTROPHIC E19
catastrophically adv. L19

Oh how very Greek. How very Greek indeed! In fact, I don't think Lexicolatry has covered a Greeker word than catastrophe; it just exudes an indefinable Greekness from every tragic phoneme and dramatic syllable. And d'you know what? I love it as a word. Considering how steeped in catastrophic tragedy Grecian culture is, it's unsurprising that catastrophe has its roots in drama, as the catastrophe was the sudden denouement of a play, particularly when it was a shocking reversal of what the audience expected (think Tom Hanks getting shot by Jude Law right at the end of Road to Perdition, just when it seemed everything was going tickety-boo).

One of catastrophe's greatest qualities as a word, however, is its evolution away from its thespian roots. Yes, of course, catastrophe can mean a genuine, ground-splitting, world-ending disaster, but it can also be used just as comfortably to describe, say, your oven going on the blink half an hour before your boss and his wife arrive for dinner. And what about a dropped ice-cream? Oh my word! Is there anything more catastrophically tragic than a dropped ice-cream? For what was a only a fleeting moment, a child held a single scoop of pure happiness in her hand. It was everything - the excitement, the anticipation, the wonder of the cool, delicious bliss to come. And then? Splat. In an instant, the child's entire world is unceremoniously spattered across the unyielding pavement. Oh one almost weeps just thinking about it.

And yes, finally, in Shakespearean English, a catastrophe was a pair of buttocks, as immortalised in the line:

"Away you scullion! You rampallion! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe!"
Henry IV Part II 

Crude Shakespearean language aside (and I do apologise for such), I say without hesitation that I'm in favour of reinstating this gluteus catastrophe, either as an adjective - "Maaan! That is one catastrophic set of glutes you got there!" - or as a noun - "I see ya baby! Shaking that catastrophe!" Of course, my feeble favours are nothing without the will of the masses, so it's up to all of us: use catastrophe today to refer to your own bottom, and together we will return this wonderful word to its rightful place.

Seriously, is there anything more catastrophic than a dropped ice-cream?

Has anyone ever admired your catastrophe?

Do please complete this post's denouement by leaving a comment in the box below.


  1. Awww! That pictures tugs at the heartstrings! Poor wee poppet.

    I always thought catastrophe as buttocks came from cat - 'ass' - trophe!
    Sorry Willie old boy! I should've known you had something to do with it.

    I won't be referring to my butt as a catastrophe - I don't like to state the obvious! :)

    1. Maybe it does, Jingles - I've now idea how Shakespeare came to apply 'catastrophe' to buttocks.

      And your last line made me chuckle ... even if it means you're not joining in with my catastrophic revolution.


    It's an old song, but the video even alludes to the Shakespearean sense of the word. Good luck! (Disclaimer: I hate this guy and this kind of music)

    1. Aaargh! My ears! They're bleeding!

      Evi! That music really is an example of a catastrophe ...

    2. I hope you got to the chorus. My intention was for it to get stuck in your head. I love to give people annoying earworms. Catastropheeeee mooooooo

  3. Tom Hanks get shot by.............?!

    Nooooooooooo! Not even a spoiler alert? That's another Friday evening you've ruined for me ed. Forget tickling, your catastrophe needs a good, solid kick.

    Looks like it's The Notebook, again. (THAT trumps a spilt ice cream.)

    1. This post went out on the very Friday you were planning to watch Road to Perdition? Incredible.

  4. What a perfect illustration, Eddie. Excellent find on that one...

    And I'm off to find myself an ice cream cone.

    1. Is it? Oh Katie, I can hardly look at it. Really, I can't - it puts a lump in my throat every time.

  5. That's a brilliant photo. I love how the Mum's attempting to look empathetic but also trying not to laugh.

    1. There's a lot of factors that make this photo so memorable - the Mum's expression is definitely one of them.

  6. I'm happy to see my photo used for something like this; it validates my decision to use Creative Commons licensing.
    I love your site! I'm a linguist by training and a translator by trade, so word geekery like this always brings a smile to my face. I'll have to visit more often.

    1. Please do, Ben - and thank you for the use of such a great photo; it was certainly well-received.

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