By Jake Davis

Disusage presents the contradictions and foibles of usage manuals, style guides, and the quirky folks who love them. This week: the celestial and earthly roots of “disaster.”

disaster. n. s. [desastre, French]
1. The blast or stroke of an unfavourable planet.
           “Stars shone with trains of fire, dews of blood fall;
           Disasters veil’d the sun; and the moist star
           Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire Stands
            Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.” Shakesp. Hamlet.
2. Misfortune; grief; mishap; misery; calamity.
           “This day black omens threat the brightest fair,
           That e’er deserv’d a watchful spirit’s care,
           Some dire disaster, or by force or flight;
           But what, or where, the fates have wrapt in night.” Pope
—from Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

disaster. (?), n. [F. désastre; pref. dés- (L. dis-) + astre star, fr. L. astrum; a word of astrological origin.]
1. An unpropitious or baleful aspect of a planet or star; malevolent influence of a heavenly body; hence, an ill portent. [Obs.] “Disasters in the sun.” Shak.
2. An adverse or unfortunate event, esp. a sudden and extraordinary misfortune; a calamity; a serious mishap. “But noble souls, through dust and heat, Rise from disaster and defeat The stronger.” Longfellow.
—from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913

“Disaster: something wrong with the stars.”
—from “English: An Ode,” by Robert Hass.

“In every phase and aspect of a disaster — causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction — the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.”
—from “There's No Such Thing as Natural Disaster,” by Neil Smith.

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