ill-starred disaster

Dear word sommelier: I just read the phrase “an ill-starred disaster.” That’s redundant, isn’t it?

Ah, this is a question not simply of linguistics and etymology but, as it happens, of one’s metaphysics and world-view as well.

As you evidently know, but others may not, disaster comes from dis “bad, ill, adverse” plus aster, from Latin astrum, from Greek ἄστρον astron, “star”; a disaster was originally not any old bad accident but specifically one attributed to a bad aspect of a star (although one could contend that pretty much any major mischance was, in the Europe of centuries past, typically attributed to a bad celestial influence; in case you’ve forgotten the extent to which the stars were thought to have a role in everything – not without input from human action, to be sure – go back and look at Shakespeare and his contemporaries, or perhaps read E.M.W. Tillyard’s excellent small book The Elizabethan World Picture; similar views were common throughout the continent). If you look in the OED’s entry on disaster, it suggests that you compare English ill-starred.

So, in origin, a disaster was by definition ill-starred, and vice-versa. But, now, tell me, is that how you use these terms and hear them today?

I could ask first whether you consider all disasters to be due to the operations of the stars. You very likely will say no, since you probably don’t hold so tightly to astrology and you must be honest and admit that disaster is today used to mean “calamity, catastrophe, cluster-f***, etc.” and not specifically “unfortunate occurrence due to adverse celestial effect”. Words often drift from their original meaning, as I mentioned yesterday in rile (see the comments too).

More loosely, since ill-starred could be said to be an allusive way of saying ill-fated, do you consider disasters all to be the operation of fate or acts of God? If you do, there may be a job waiting for you in the claims department of an insurance company. But you likely believe in human error as a cause of many a disaster, and in definable if unpredictable forces – plate tectonics, for instance – as the cause of many others. Given that, specification of a disaster as “ill-starred” would set it apart from disasters that had causes other than ineffable fate.

And you likewise may hold that things may be ill-starred without being disasters per se – for instance, Romeo and Juliet, being star-crossed lovers, were ill-starred, but not everyone would classify adolescent love suicides in the category “disasters” (“bad things”, yes, but disaster, travelling often nowadays with natural, tends to be thought of as involving mass destruction of real estate – or else a really bad outcome for a social event).

However, if you don’t believe in the existence of anything that anyone could in any way call “fate”, then is there still a distinction to be made? If you use ill-starred to mean “a thing that shouldn’t have happened but did”, which is pretty much the meaning available for those who hold no truck with fate or celestial influence, then isn’t a disaster automatically something you’d call ill-starred, like calling water wet?

One could make that argument, but one would risk overlooking all the other effects of lexical entries besides those of paraphrasable definitions. For instance, one might say that a disaster is automatically upsetting, and that dammit expresses being upset, and that therefore “This is a disaster, dammit” should be edited down to “This is a disaster.” Yet can you honestly say that there is no difference in what is expressed about the speaker’s attitude between one and the other?

In truth, even for those who don’t believe in fate or astrology, ill-starred brings an image of either a certain inevitability or a particular conjunction of adverse forces. It also, of course, has the flavour of ill, which can seem a bit green at the gills and which, along with being popular in youthful use lately (ever since the Beastie Boys, really), has rhymes with chill, kill, spill, etc., and a certain similarity to eww. And there is the flavour of star, which has an éclat, a flash and bang, or at least a little twinkle. Don’t miss those double letters in the spelling, either, sort of like the motion lines of a cartoon object entering a collision.

Disaster, for its part, has its own flavour, and although it has similarities with ill-starred (the s t r hint at the fact that aster and star are cognate way back), its sound has more in common with catastrophe (even though that’s not a cognate word). You also get a feel of blast, cast, disturb, and perhaps zaps – less likely sister and Zoroaster, which have resemblances in form but not in sense.

And don’t forget the different effect the length and rhythm of the phrase will have. “This is a disaster” is a simple declaration; “This is an ill-starred disaster” is much more epic and solemn, not only because it’s longer (and more rhythmic) but because it’s more literary-seeming. It says as much about the speaker as about what’s being spoken about. After all, how often do you even hear ill-starred these days? Surely you wouldn’t want to delete it when you actually do see it, would you? That would almost seem to be tempting fate…

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2 responses to “ill-starred disaster

  1. A further observation: a disaster is often conceptualized as something that has been led up to by a chain of events; we see this in phrases such as a recipe for disaster and would lead to disaster. If the events leading to a disaster were foreseeable and avoidable, we could not say it was ill-starred.

    Contrast this with catastrophe, which, I suspect, is more often used with a sense of abruptness – though I haven’t actually done research to confirm that impression.

  2. Pingback: quux | Sesquiotica

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