A catastrophe wasn't always a terrible event! When it was borrowed in the early sixteenth century, the word merely referred to a sudden and unexpected reversal. In this context, it could even refer to, say, an impoverished person winning the lottery. Through Latin, this comes from the Greek word katastrophe, meaning "an overturning" (as if the plot was suddenly overturned). This is a portmanteau of kata, meaning "down" or "against", and strephein, meaning "turn". Kata comes from Proto-Indo-European kom, with the definition of "beside". The verb strephein, meanwhile, comes from PIE strebh, also having to do with "twisting" and "turning". Now, the whole reason for this post is so I can share one of my favorite words: eucatastrophe, when a previously dark story took a suddenly good turn and ending happily. This was coined by none other than Lord of the Rings author and amateur etymologist J.R.R. Tolkein in a 1944 letter by attaching the prefix eu-, an Ancient Greek prefix for "good". What a eucatastrophical origin!
Adam Aleksic is a 221-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam will be studying linguistics at Harvard University in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd