Iowa Caucus 'Debacle': Worse Than We 'Thaw't'

By Rob Kyff

February 19, 2020 3 min read

Well, we finally found something that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on: The Democratic Iowa caucuses were a "debacle." That's the word reporters and political analysts seemed to seize on most often when describing the recent Hawkeye havoc.

Whence "debacle"?

Picture a February thaw suddenly melting the ice in the Des Moines River. When "debacle" first entered English in 1802, it specifically meant "the violent breaking up of ice in a river, or the rush of ice or water that follows such an occurrence."

"Debacle" derives from the French verb "debacler," a combination of "des-" (do the opposite of) and "bacler" (to block). By the mid 1800s, "debacle" was being used to refer to any violent, destructive flood, and eventually, it came to mean any collapse or breakdown.

Another disaster term based on raging water is "cataclysm." Derived from the ancient Greek "kataklysmos" (deluge, flood), "cataclysm" entered English with this "inundation" meaning during the 1500s, but it soon came to be used for any form of violent destruction.

The Iowa caucuses unleashed several other terms for calamity:

Catastrophe: English speakers borrowed this Greek word during the 1500s to refer to the conclusion of a dramatic work. It derives from the ancient Greek "katastrophe," meaning "an overturning, a sudden end." Because many plays ended in tragedy, "catastrophe" soon became a general term for any devastating outcome.

Disaster: The ancients believed that human fate was linked to the stars, and the Italian word "disastro," from the Latin "dis-" (wrong, apart) and "astrum" (star), meant "ill-starred" or "ill-fated." When English adopted "disastro" as "disaster" during the 1500s, it originally meant "an unfavorable aspect of a planet or star" but soon came to mean a terrible misfortune.

Fiasco: Some contend "fiasco" arose in the lingo of the Italian theater, where "far fiasco" (literally, making a bottle) meant to flub your lines or commit other mistakes on stage. The theory goes that "far fiasco" originally referred to dropping a bottle during a play and was soon extended to any show-stopping accident.

But others track the origin of this term to Italian glass blowers. When these craftsmen botched the creation of a fancy bottle, they would often use the leftover glass to make an inferior bottle. They called this blunder "far fiasco" (again, "making a bottle"), or simply a "fiasco."

Maybe that's why the Iowa results were bottled up for so long.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: rachflex at Pixabay

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