5x6 (5x6) wrote in linguaphiles,

Catastrophe etc

How would you formulate the difference between catastrophe, calamity and disaster?
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A catastrophe is way worse, a calamity is kind of like a clusterfuck (it's just a crazy mess), and a disaster is pretty awful, but it doesn't imply as much complete failure as catastrophe does.
"Calamity" has a humorous sound to it. I don't think I ever use it non-jocularly.

I agree that a "catastrophe" is worse and more widespread in its effects than a "disaster", which is the most unmarked term of the three. A "disaster" is a major setback; there's usually no recovering from a "catastrophe". "Natural disaster" is a fixed term for an adverse event of significant impact caused by natural processes.
For further proof of catastrophe being more serious than a disaster, I thought of the phrase one might hear used by journalists after a particularly damaging event: "a disaster of catastrophic proportions".

I don't think one would ever hear "a catastrophe of disastrous proportions".
I think a person might have a calamity, a disaster, a catastrophe, in ascending order of seriousness.

For me, I don't think calamities happen on a wider scale - they're personal - and I agree with muckefuck that there are - at least nowadays - humorous overtones to the word. If a person is telling people about a calamity, I'd expect lots of things to have gone wrong but overall it makes for a very good and possibly funny story.

Perhaps I can differentiate disaster from catastrophe with an example: if you're on your way to take an important exam and a car accident puts you in hospital so you miss the exam and lose your place at uni, that's a disaster. If the person driving you dies in the crash, that's a catastrophe.
The question reminded me of this quote (which has several variations)::

If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity.

"Catastrophe", for me, still has its dramatic meaning: the point in a tragedy where everything comes unstuck. "Disaster" means any spectacular piece of bad luck. "Calamity" is pretty much a synonym, but is more tendentious, appropriate when the listener/reader might disagree about the badness of the event.


April 27 2014, 12:11:13 UTC 2 years ago Edited:  April 27 2014, 12:21:19 UTC

Perhaps I've been too influenced by news coverage, but my reaction was that 'disaster' is something you can recover from; 'catastrophe' is not, there is no recovery. 'Calamity' is something you recovered from, more or less, and got on with the rest of your intention. Like a shipwreck on your route where you survive, but lose all your luggage and perhaps spend time in hospital. Or something or a series of 'calamities' that were survived, like a tent collapsing in a storm, your camper van going off the road and having to be towed back on, etc. Hm, a 'calamity' is something that 'befalls' the new colony.

On the camping trip, 'disaster' might be a big storm washing away some of your equipment, bringing your tent down on your head, muddying most of your food. You may give up the trip, or you may choose to recoup and carry on. A catastrophe would leave no hope of continuing; you're lucky to survive.

Maybe a 'calamity' is always seen looking back, after you know you (or whatever) survived and got on with things. While it's happening, you don't know whether it will turn out to be a disaster or a catastrophe, and hope it will just be a calamity.

Of course they aren't that clearly distinguished; these are just shades of meaning.

/ Southern US; old Oxbridge