Why was the scary word “cataclysm” so popular on Google yesterday? What does it mean?


Why does cataclysm mean exactly?

If a word like “cataclysm,” that basically means “a ginormous, Armageddon–style disaster” is all over the Web, you might feel a tad cantankerous, or at least concerned. Would it make you feel better to know that the news was greeted by thousands of geeks around the world with glee?

Enough teasing — “Cataclysm” refers to the latest installment of “World of Warcraft,” the multiplayer fantasy game played by millions. Gamers are probably salivating at the announced return of Deathwing the Destroyer, last seen in “Warcraft II,” but name itself evokes real-life stories and adventure.

(Note as well that the word “Geek” has a gross and bizarre origin. What about “nerd?” The answer is here.)

Cataclysm” entered English through French, but has its roots in Greek, stemming from kataklysmos or “wash down.” The word has long been associated with the myth of the deluge, an idea that occurs in diverse cultures that flood and destruction envelop the planet as divine punishment for earthly misdeeds. Noah, his ark, and the Biblical flood are probably the most familiar example. The washing down is also linked to rebirth and second chances.

Another association of cataclysm is to Doomsday, a Biblical term for the judgment that is also used to describe man made or natural phenomena that could spell doom for the human race or fundamentally alter the landscape. Such nightmarish situations as the Harrying of the North by William the Conqueror, which left Yorkshire, England, in a state of chaos for nearly a century, would be a doomsday event.  Players can expect a similarly catastrophic event with the return of Deathwing.

The study of endings, and end times, is known as eschatology, from the Greek eskhatos, “last, furthest, remote”, and -logia “a speaking.” Any eschatologist or linguist worth his or her salt has to appreciate the uniqueness of “cataclysm.” Say it out loud: the word features three voiceless plosives or stops in a row, producing a pleasant tattoo of sound that is uncommon in English. In other words, it’s a fun way to say “destruction.”

Now, consider this techie question: What does the “I” stand for in iPod, iPhone, and iPad? Click here to find out, before the apocalypse begins.

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