Words To Describe Disasters

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The past few weeks have seen a surge of fevered rhetoric in the media. Here are a few examples:

Senator Warns of a Republican Blood Bath
Lawmakers gloomy, back on defense after debate fiasco
Election Experts Warn of November Disaster
[One Party] warns of chaos if [Other Party] wins
Senators warn of ‘catastrophe’ if eviction protections expire
Critics say he cannot be absolved of responsibility for the election-day carnage.
5 ways the Russians could wreak havoc on the 2020 election
We’re about to watch the biggest debacle in history and we have front row seats.

Let’s have a look at these scary words: bloodbath, fiasco, disaster, chaos, catastrophe, carnage, havoc, debacle. When are they appropriate to the context, and when are they overkill?

bloodbath (noun): a battle or fight at which much blood is spilt; a wholesale slaughter, a massacre.

Blood is one of the most evocative words in English. It seems overkill to use the word bloodbath for anything less serious than literal bloodshed.

fiasco (noun): a failure or break-down in a dramatic or musical performance. In a general sense, an ignominious failure.

Fiasco comes from an Italian word meaning “flask or bottle.” No one quite knows how it came to mean a failure, but it apparently originated as theater slang. It has a connotation of humiliation, so it seems an appropriate choice for a political failure.

disaster (noun): An event or occurrence of a ruinous or very distressing nature; a calamity; especially a sudden accident or natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life. The word entered English from Middle French desastre, “catastrophe, calamity, misfortune.”

chaos (noun): the formless void believed to have existed before the creation of the universe; primordial matter. In current usage, chaos is used to describe any confused, disordered state.

catastrophe (noun): a final event; a conclusion generally unhappy; a sudden disaster, wide-spread, very fatal.

carnage (noun): the slaughter of a great number.

Like blood, carnage is a word to evoke a visceral reaction. One visualizes heaps of bloody bodies.

havoc (noun): devastation, destruction.

The word comes from a phrase, perhaps originally Germanic, that was used as the signal for the seizure of spoil, and so of general spoliation or pillage.

English speakers are familiar with the line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, spoken by Marc Antony as he imagines the slain Caesar’s spirit in search of revenge, “cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

The verbs most commonly used with havoc are wreak and play.

A snowstorm wreaked havoc in Washington, nearly cancelling the inaugural parade.

The winds played havoc with any ball in the air, and also helped skew the score.

debacle (noun): a sudden breaking up or downfall; a confused rush or rout, a stampede.

Merriam-Webster defines debacle as “a great disaster, a complete failure” and gives fiasco as a synonym. It seems that a debacle would be much worse than a fiasco. Consider its original meaning as given in the OED:

debacle: A breaking up of ice in a river; in geology, a sudden deluge or violent rush of water, which breaks down opposing barriers, and carries before it blocks of stone and other debris.

There are degrees of failure, humiliation, and calamity. Context should influence word-choice.

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2 thoughts on “Words To Describe Disasters”

  1. I have saw a word “apocalypse”, appeared in Pacific Rim: Uprising, describes that when Kaijus constitute mount fuji volcanic eruption successfully, the world ends. Since then I think this originally religious word is used for the level of the total human civilization, which may be overkill for the national election.

  2. Isaac Ge:
    Good point. I don’t know how I could have omitted “apocalypse”. The word itself comes from a Greek word meaning “disclosure” or “revelation.” Because the Book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament describes a world-ending event, “apocalypse,” which originally referred to the prophesies “revealed” in the book, has come to mean such an event. I agree, a bit overkill for a national election.

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