By apsillers


2012-07-16 20:41:25 8 Comments

Are there any English words that mean "an unlikely calamity" in that same way that "miracle" can mean "an unlikely beneficial event"? My thesaurus only provides antonyms of "miracle" that mean "a mundane event" rather than "a horrible event".

I'm thinking specifically of multiple unlikely failures occurring simultaneously: I suffer an unlikely injury that leaves me unable to leave the house and my usually-reliable telephone service suddenly cuts out for the day, so I can't phone for help.

Words like "catastrophe" and "calamity" seem too general, since I'd like to express the exceptional unlikelihood of the event (or events). The best I have is a descriptive phrase like "disastrous coincidence," but I'd prefer a single word.

Overtones of the divine or demonic are not required, but preferred.

10 comments

@Flater 2017-05-12 08:40:42

I think you answered your own question. Of all the possibilities I could think of, "calamity" described it the best.

A miracle is not just an unexpected good thing that happens, but it is an unexpected good thing that is excessively good for you, to an unusual degree.

A calamity describes the same thing. It doesn't just describe any bad event that happens, it carries the connotation that what happened was excessively bad, to an unusual degree.

It's not just any unexpected (good/bad) thing, it's a rare sighting to ever experience something that is (good/bad) to this degree.

@James Waldby - jwpat7 2017-05-12 14:21:56

Experts would disagree with “it's a rare sighting to ever experience something that is (good/bad) to this degree”. See, for example, Littlewood's Law, which in reflection of the Law of truly large numbers predicts “one can expect to observe one miraculous event for every 35 days' time, on average – and therefore [...] seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace”.

@Flater 2017-05-12 14:36:05

@JamesWaldby-jwpat7 I agree with you from a scientific point of view, but not a linguistic one. A miracle is always subjective and personal. What to one person can seem like a miracle, can seem like an everyday event to another. E.g. seeing a comet, experienced by a tribesman or an astronomer. I refer to Clarke's third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Miracles fall under the purview of magic: they are inexplicable yet still observed.

@John Lawler 2012-07-16 21:27:36

Miracle is still the right word. As Terry Pratchett puts it,

“Whatever happens, they say afterwards, it must have been Fate. People are always a little confused about this, as they are in the case of miracles. When someone is saved from certain death by a strange concatenation of circumstances, they say that's a miracle. But of course if someone is killed by a freak chain of events: the oil just spilled there, the safety fence just broke there : that must also be a miracle. Just because it's not nice doesn't mean it's not miraculous.”

@Mitch 2012-07-16 21:50:21

Or one might say, in terms of battles, a 'miracle' happened to both sides, just more favorably for one rather than the other.

@apsillers 2012-07-16 21:50:52

+1 - This was a point I had considered when I looked at all the definitions for "miracle", but the Pratchett quote does a magnificent job of articulating it.

@John Lawler 2012-07-16 22:02:04

Yeah, he's very good that way.

@Gnubie 2016-03-08 18:45:05

If the event is relatively small in scale, e.g. affecting a person or a few people rather than a country, "freak accident" may be applicable:

An incident, especially one that is harmful, occurring under highly unusual and unlikely circumstances.

http://onelook.com/?w=freak+accident

@Shawn 2015-09-18 04:52:53

I think it would have to be Curse.

@Adam 2015-09-18 08:21:43

Hi Shawn, welcome to EL&U. Could you elaborate on your answer? Why do you think the opposite of miracle is curse?

@Stephen M. Webb 2018-02-28 19:19:45

I would have to agree with this: a miracle implies a supernatural manipulation of events for a benevolent outcome, and a curse implies a supernatural manipulation of events for a malevolent outcome. Same cause, opposite outcome.

@user70092 2014-03-26 05:26:36

Tragedy.If Miracle is unexplained welcome event so is the Tragedy opposite of it.

@Flater 2017-05-12 08:42:48

Tragedy expressed the sadness that the event causes, but it does not express the unlikely nature of it occurring. Miracles, by definition, are rare occurrences that would not befall most people. If they were an everyday event, they would not be a miracle. Tragedies can be everyday events, e.g. dropping your coffee on the way to work (silly example but the point still stands).

@Duane 2013-09-12 18:20:47

inexplicable catastrophe

To the use of miracle for both good and bad, I suggest that only works when the reader understands the lexicographic definition. And I'm afraid the vast majority of mankind does not.

@New Alexandria 2013-09-12 18:57:10

Welcome to the site! Are you suggesting that most people do not understand that a miracle is generally-good?

@Ian 2012-07-24 15:18:33

“Act of God” is sometimes used in English law for an event that is not reasonable to predict, for example flooding in a area that does not normally get flooding.

@chaos 2012-07-16 21:29:20

Disaster is very close in root meaning to what you're looking for, describing as it does an "ill-starred" event.

Debacle has the advantage of looking like an antonym to "miracle".

@Mitch 2012-07-16 21:49:42

'catastrophe' has the same kind of etymology.

@apsillers 2012-07-16 21:53:09

+1 - "Ill-starred event" is much better than any phrases I came up with, since it communicates a negative outcome along with the suggestion of the supernatural.

@Tony Balmforth 2012-07-16 22:51:30

I favour the use of the word cataclysm to convey the meaning as you have described it i.e. antonym to Miracle.

@James Waldby - jwpat7 2012-07-16 22:22:59

Consider force majeure ("an overwhelming force" or "an unavoidable catastrophe") and act of God ("an unforeseen occurrence beyond one's control, such as a natural disaster"). Also consider slightly-related idioms or phrases like chain of events, road to ruin, snowball, runaway train and booby trap ("an unforeseen or unexpected or surprising difficulty").

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