Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
When Shakespeare referred to Romeo and Juliet as “a pair of star-cross’d lovers,” he wasn’t just exercising poetic license; he was hinting at the disaster that was written in their stars.
But then, all disasters were once confined to the stars.
In Shakespeare’s time, disaster was astrological, referring not to an earthbound event but to an unfavorable aspect of a star or planet. That astrological essence is contained in the word: Disaster comes from the prefix dis- (well-known from words like discomfort, disorder, and disregard) plus the Latin astro “star.” Etymologically, something that’s disastrous is “ill-starred.”
An astrologer of old might have warned Juliet of a disaster in her stars that indicated a disastrous event was heading her way. No doubt after the pair’s tragic end, some other soothsayer “discovered” that their fate had been obvious in their star charts if anyone had bothered to look.
Over time, disaster came to describe not an astrological signal of a calamitous event, but the calamity itself. These days, most people don’t believe their fate is controlled by the positions of stars and planets, but that doesn’t stop disasters from happening.
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