In a Word: Disaster Is in the Stars

Etymologically, the earthbound calamities we call ‘disasters’ began in the stars.

A view of space

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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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Comments

  1. Very interesting, Andy. I’ve long known the ‘dis’ prefix was the first part of a negative word; I just never connected it to the Latin “astro” star before.

    What’s equally interesting is that the word disasters itself contains the word ‘stars’ within it. Speaking of that, I’ve long noticed the words sedentary, sedative, sedate and sedan all contain the word the word ‘sad’ within it.

    For the past few decades now, the sedan has been basically almost the only body style you can get on cars. Mainly 4 doors, and occasional 2 door sedan. During the peak years of the 20th century (1946-1972) the sedan was the bottom-of-the-line “value” or “budget” models. You know, the “sad” plain-Jane Biscayne vs. the the fancy, open coupe Impala. Black wall tires also went with the ‘ugly’ ones; not the attractive white walls that completed the look of the beautiful models.

    The auto industry worked hard to bury the “sedan” from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s with open air 4 door (pillar less) coupes; not sedans in any way. Then circumstances changed all that, and we’re permanently stuck with vehicles that have more in common bodystyle-wise with 1919, not 1969. Sad. For a real Jetsons eye-candy fix, check out images of GM’s 1959 ‘flattop’ 4-door coupes: Impala, Bonneville, Invicta, Electra and more. 🙂

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