cataclasm

We had an ice storm in Toronto last night and today. If you’ve ever lived through one, you know what follows: a lot of crashing, as the ice clinging to high things comes loose and falls off – or breaks those high things under its weight and falls down with them. It’s one thing if you’re in an area with a lot of trees: the ice falling off branches sounds like people dropping champagne flutes onto a hard floor. It’s another thing if you’re an urban cliff-dweller, listening from your high windows to the adventitious cornices breaking free from their holds 30, 40, and 50 storeys above the shiny pavement and clattering into the chasm. It sounds more like the fall of an icy archangel through the thousand glass floors of heaven and hell.

Surely there must be a word for this, the aftermath of an ice storm? Of course. Etymology buffs can confect it from roots and they won’t be wrong: when things break down, or break and fall down, your Greek parts are κατα kata ‘down’ and κλάσμα klasma ‘breaking’ (from κλᾶν klan ‘break’), translated into the English modular bits cata (as in cataclysm and catastrophe) and clasm (as in iconoclasm), making cataclasm. And since clasm is related to clastic (as in iconoclastic, pyroclastic, etc.), the adjectival form of cataclasm is cataclastic, which, if you say it loudly, sharply, rapidly, and repeatedly in an echoey place, sounds rather like a big chunk of ice breaking free from the top of a building and disintegrating as it knocks against widow ledges all the way down.

But cataclasm is not just or even primarily for the breaking and falling of ice from on high. Indeed, anything that is inelastic can be cataclastic. Well, the only real current use of cataclastic is geological, to refer to a structural character caused by intense crushing. But it’s a suitable adjectival form for cataclasm, and cataclasm means ‘break or disruption’. Which characterizes not just what happens to the ice falling off buildings, but what happens to life in the aftermath of an ice storm: transit is cut off, power is cut off, the normal run of things is cut off. Things break down, and the system breaks down, at least temporarily.

It’s not necessarily accurate to call an ice storm a cataclysm with a y – that really refers to a catastrophic (‘down-stroking’) deluge, or something suitably like one – but it’s quite reasonable to call it a cataclasm… one that leads to thousands of smaller cataclasms.

One response to “cataclasm

  1. A timely blog, James. But as one who sat in her tree-surrounded home during the ice storm of 1998 (at least, until cold drove us out for a week), I wouldn’t compare the sounds I heard to champagne flutes dropping onto a hard floor, which makes me think of a rambunctious party. Rather, it was the sound of thousands of tortured bones finally breaking, as the ice didn’t slide off the twigs and branches and trees but snapped them them off, careless whether in whole or part. Cataclasmic indeed.

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