Twenty-odd years ago, a friend of mine, a sober-minded accountant, fell into an unwonted moment of irrational exuberance. He sank all his savings into what he swore was a sure thing: an ostrich farm in Arizona.
A few weeks later, a hailstorm hit, killing hundreds of ratites and instantly erasing my friend’s investment. He did not have long to dwell on the loss, though, for shortly afterward he slipped in the shower, split his head open, and bled to death.
That’s a gruesome story, and I apologize for it. But it illustrates this fine distinction: The loss of the birds was a calamity, the loss of the man a catastrophe. The latter might even have been a disaster, had we proof that he was destined to die young and in such unhappy circumstances.
A calamity entails the loss of a crop—including, in this case, a crop of exotic birds. A calamitas, in Latin, was the kind of storm so severe that it sheared grain as it stood in the field, devastating the harvest. By extension, it came to mean any natural misfortune that led to crop loss, such as a blight. By further extension, it also meant a military defeat, an event that destroyed a crop of warriors. Julius Caesar writes in his Gallic Wars, for instance, of a tribe invaded by the ancestors of today’s peaceable Swiss Germans. Within days, those unfortunates “had been routed, and had sustained a great calamity—had lost all their nobility, all their senate, all their cavalry,” a great reversal of fortunes indeed.
A fatal slip in the shower is a catastrophe. An early use of that word, which in Greek has the root meaning “to turn upside down,” comes from the historian Herodotus, who tells us of a king named Croesus who dared go up against the mighty Persian armies of Cyrus the Great. Beforehand, Croesus asked the oracle at Delphi what would happen if he took up arms, and he was told, “If you do, a mighty empire will be destroyed.” Croesus didn’t think that one through as hard as he should have, and a mighty empire was indeed katestrepsato, overturned—his own.
In the strictest sense, a disaster is an event under the influence of a dis, or wayward, astrum, or star—the sad fates of Romeo and Juliet, say, those star-crossed lovers of yore. The rational among us tend not to place much belief in such things, but that doesn’t keep journalists from using the term as a near-equivalent for “bad accident,” as when a building collapses or a ship capsizes.
When disaster or catastrophe or calamity strikes, none of us, rational or no, worries much about the etymological rightness of each of those terms. That is as it should be. We might hope instead only to have occasion to use them less, which wouldn’t seem to be in the cards—or, for that matter, the stars.