Words: Catastrophe

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sir Jeremy Isaacs said last week that the proposal to merge London's opera houses was catastrophic, while the British Road Haulage Association was thinking the same about the French lorry-drivers' strike: the situation, it is reported to have said, was a catastrophe.

A funny thing has happened to this ancient word on its way to the second millennium. To the Greeks who coined it a catastrophe was simply an upshot (strophe meant "turn"), or, more precisely, the denouement of a play - perhaps a happy ending. This was the sense we used it in when we first imported it from the Continent in the 16th century. In fact, it could be used of any sort of end. Shakespeare has a drunken Falstaff say to the barman "I'll tickle your catastrophe", meaning what the Victorian editors of the OED called discreetly "the posteriors".

So why has it come to mean only an unhappy ending? Is it because of the gloomy disposition of the British, who are much too easily persuaded that things are going to turn out badly? Evidently not, because the same thing has happened in French, in whose dictionaries it is defined as a desastre. lt must be a general trait, a universal pessimism. Most dispiriting. Disasters, however, have never meant anything different. We know where we are with them. Take the Latin astrum and attach a dis and you have an unlucky star, nothing you can do about it.

Today the two words still have their own uses. Catastrophe is the weaker one. Disasters tend to happen on railways and motorways and in the air. Sports writers, who like to think in cosmic terms, are fond of the word - football managers suffer a disastrous season, when they are themselves described as disasters. Meanwhile, there's always fiasco, though no one seems to know why the Italian for a bottle should have come to mean a proper cock-up.