The end of the world loves ancient Greek and the Bible.
Threats between North Korea and President Trump this week made many of us fear were approaching the brink of a nuclear catastrophe—among other, stronger and more colorful terms like armageddon. Well, not even the prospect of the end of the world can shake the etymological curiosity of this blogger. Why not go out with a little word nerdery and find out where our English’s apocalyptic vocabulary comes from?
Etymologically, armageddon is a “great and final conflict” of truly biblical proportions. The name is referenced in Revelation 16:16, which mentions demons gathering up kings and their armies for the ultimate battle between good and evil at the end of the world “to the place in the Hebrew tongue called Armageddon.” Scholars take this Armageddon to be from the Hebrew Har Megiddon, or “Mount Megiddon,” a site of important battles for the ancient Israelites in central Palestine. Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley gets credit for the earliest figurative use of armageddon in an 1811 letter.
We think of armageddons as ending the world in “fire and fury,” as President Trump alarmingly put it this week. But a cataclysm literally ushers in a watery demise: It comes from the ancient Greek kataklysmos (κατακλυσμός), a “deluge.” The word joins the prefix kata- (κατά ; “down”) and klyzein (κλύζειν; “wash, dash like a wave”).
In English, cataclysm first appears as a metaphor for great upheaval—“cataclysms of blood”—in a 1633 play. A few years later we have evidence for cataclysm in its etymological sense of a “great flood,” especially in reference to Noah’s in the Old Testament.
The Greek kata- appears in a great many other English words, like catalogue—or catastrophe. Catastrophe has more innocuous beginnings. In English, it was first used (1579) for the “concluding action of a drama,” especially what we’d now call the “twist.” This makes etymological sense: It comes from the Greek katastrophe (καταστροϕή), an “overturning” or “sudden turn,” joining strephein (στρέϕειν; “to turn,” also in apostrophe) to kata.
The final scenes of a drama can be deadly and ruinous, and so we see catastrophe extended to any “sudden disaster” in the early 1600s. Shakespeare, for his part, got creative with the word, using its sense of “end” as a humorous word for the butt. In Henry IV Part 2, Falstaff’s page threatens Mistress Quickly: “Away, you scullion, you rampallian, you fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!” or “I’ll whip your rear end.”
Today, we tend to reserve holocaust for one of two mass destructions: the Jewish Holocaust and nuclear holocaust. The word is ultimately from the Greek holokaustos (ὁλόκαυστος), “burnt whole.” (Holo, ὅλος, means “whole” and is seen in other words like holograph. Kaustos, “burnt,” is related to caustic.) In the early 14th century, holocaust named a “whole burnt offering,” enlarged to sacrifices on yet bigger scales. Milton extended holocaust to “a destruction of a large number of persons” in 1671.
Apocalypse derives from the Greek apokalypsis (ἀποκάλυψις), an “uncovering.” Here, the prefix apo– (ἀπό) is “off” and kalyptein (καλύπτειν) is “to cover,” related to its Latin-based synonym, conceal. But what is being uncovered in the apocalypse? The New Testament’s Revelation was originally called Apocalypse, as the biblical book was a “revelation of future upheaval” given in a vision to its purported author, John of Patmos. In the mid-19th century, apocalypse was used of the world-ending events in Revelation, extended to any “catastrophic destruction” by the end of the 1800s.
Finally, as I examined earlier this year, doomsday is found in Old English gospels as dómes dæg, referring to Judgment Day (literally “day of judgement”), when some Christians believe God will judge all of humanity at the end of the world. The Old English dóm variously named a “statue, decision, or sentence,” especially a condemnatory of punitive one, but its doomsday associations pushed doom towards its general sense of “death” and “destruction.”
…Happy Friday, everyone?
7 thoughts on ““Armageddon,” “catastrophe,” and other “apocalyptic” word origins”
A very minor point: the Hebrew is הר מגידו, with no /n/ at the end. The /n/ of Armageddon goes back to Greek Ἁρμαγεδών.
Aha! Thanks for the info and correction!
What about “disaster”? i.e. “ill star”.
Very very good thanks for sharing that