Rantings of a sub-editor

March 14, 2011

When is a crisis not a catastrophe?

Filed under: crisis/catastrophe — substuff @ 11:30 am
Tags: , ,

Early this bleary morning, I was half-listening to Radio 4. The newsreader was talking about the second explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant. I’m not quoting here, but he said something along the lines of “however, the crisis [at the plant] is not expected to become a catastrophe”.

My ears pricked up at this – I’d kind of assumed a crisis and a catastrophe were one and the same. But as I was simultaneously pulling on my boots, mainlining a cup of tea and brushing my teeth in a triumph of elegant multitasking, I didn’t have a spare hand to reach for the dictionary.

I’ve just looked them up now, and there’s definitely a difference.

From the OED:


  1. a a decisive moment. b a time of danger or great difficulty.
  2. the turning point, esp of a disease.


  1. a great and unusually sudden disaster.
  2. the denoument of a drama.
  3. a disastrous end; ruin.
  4. an event producing a subversion of the order of things.

 So a crisis, rather than being a disaster, is the point when something becomes (or doesn’t become) the kind of disaster that ends life as we know it.

Go Radio 4.

I wish I’d found out in happier circumstances, though. Ganbatte, Nihon, ganbatte.



  1. I think I also heard that broadcast — it was a nice distinction. Both words come from classical Greek. ‘krisis’ refers to a decision, judgement, event or issue (from the verb ‘krino,’ meaning ‘I judge/distinguish’). ‘katastrophe’ is ‘overturning,’ ‘conclusion,’ ‘ruin,’ from the preposition ‘kata’ meaning ‘down’ and the noun ‘strophe’ — ‘turning,’ ‘twisting.’ It conveys a sense of violence and motion.

    Thanks for the post!

    Comment by Frieda — March 15, 2011 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for this – I love hearing where words come from. As you’re clearly in the know, can you recommend a good etymological dictionary? I would like to start educating myself in this kind of direction, but for a complete beginner, it’s kinda hard to know where to start.

      Comment by substuff — March 16, 2011 @ 9:55 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: