The Compulsive Copyeditor

June 10, 2010

How Catastrophe Marks Language

Filed under: language evolving,vocabulary — amba12 @ 1:56 am

Mark Morford writes a playful but ultimately mordant post about the new words gushing into our language from BP’s broken pipe.

What other examples can you think of?  Often events become metaphors, from Waterloo to Watergate.  There’s the silly suffix “-gate” to signify any corruption scandal (as silly as “-burger” to denote any patty of ground meat; “Hamburger” originally means something or someone from Hamburg!).  There’s “Ground Zero,” passing from Hiroshima to Lower Manhattan by way of the eerie misuse “go back to ground zero,” which apparently precedes even square one.  There’s “Obama’s Katrina.”  There’s “a tsunami of” this or that.  Some events are irreducible to metaphors.  D-day is only and always itself.  V-J Day never became vajayay-day.  So “the Holocaust,” although that word, literally “all burned,”  originally meant “a sacrifice consumed by fire” and then any catastrophic blaze.

Other, better examples of marks left on the language by great catastrophes or crises, from Pompeii to Teapot Dome?  Do these words stay, or do they eventually date and fade away?



  1. ‘Chauvinist’ may belong on Cloven, not Crested, but it also comes from Napoleon…but not about women!

    Comment by Ron — June 10, 2010 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

  2. “blowout preventer” is the one that snags me. It contains “prevent” and all that encapsulates. If we can pre vent the vile, maybe it won’t be so vile? As if only a little bit at a time won’t hurt so bad.

    Sort of like the way that TARP was supposed to prevent the blowout of the banking industry. It’s still toxic and it is still going to poison us… but now it’s slow instead of all at once.

    Comment by Donna B. — June 13, 2010 @ 5:23 am | Reply

  3. […] on is also about context; there are vehicles — certain TV shows and movies; viral videos; disasters, scandals and gaffes — that have the mojo to drive their contents, both words and images, […]

    Pingback by Coining a Word (Well, Trying To) « The Compulsive Copyeditor — July 9, 2010 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: