Saturday, September 11, 2010




1 : a tumultuous breakup of ice in a river
2 : a violent disruption (as of an army) : rout
3 : a : a great disaster; b : a complete failure : fiasco

DEBACLE is one of those words I use with frequency in an over-exaggerated manner. For example, I might refer to the repetitive re-scheduling of a coffee date as "the social DEBACLE of 2010." One might describe this word choice as sarcastic, calling attention to the hyperbole in such a statement. In reality, re-scheduling a coffee date is not a "great disaster," nor is it a "violent disruption" or a "tumultuous break-up of ice in a river." It's just a pain in the ass. But it's FUNNY to over-exaggerate. After all, over-exaggeration is NOT THE END OF THE WORLD.

DEBACLE comes from the French verb débåcler (I'm terrible with keyboard symbol shortcuts, forgive me): to clear, unbolt, unbar. The etymology moved as quickly as the broken ice flowing down the thawing river—from the breaking, to the disastrous flood, to a collapse in general, to the less intense fiasco. It's interesting how the meaning of words often gets softened as language unfolds. The breaking of ice in a river is an extremely violent natural event. Hence, referring to something as a DEBACLE is essentially holding it up in comparison to this violence.

When I do a search in Google News for the most recent uses of the word DEBACLE, this is what I find:

"MTV hoping to move on from West DEBACLE at VMAs." -Associated Press

"Wheeler intends to play with an edge this year after last season's DEBACLE (38 points)." -NBC Sports

"New York Giants get chance for revenge vs. Panthers after December DEBACLE." -New York Daily News.

Pop culture, sports, and sports—all referring to TUMULTUOUS AND VIOLENT DISASTER, I'm sure.


I think about sitting beside a river in early spring, the tips of my ears numb with the cold of morning, my gloved hands wedged under my bent knees, the slant of sunlight barely reaching the water's edge, listening to the sound of the DEBACLE, the ice cracking, pulling, tearing away from itself, drowning out everything else around. This never happened. At least, yet.

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