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Dr. Goodword
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Postby Dr. Goodword » Mon Sep 10, 2012 10:37 pm

• debacle •

Pronunciation: di-bah-kêl • Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A complete collapse, downfall, or defeat; disastrous failure. 2. The spring breakup of ice on a river. 3. (Geology) The flood that sometimes results from the breaking up of ice on a river or flooding that brings with it large scale debris.

Notes: Today's Good Word is a lexical orphan; that is, it has no derivational relatives. It is interesting for its surprising second meaning: the breakup of ice on a river. Although this could result in a debacle in the first sense, this isn't always the case.

In Play: This word is most often used in the sense of a disastrous failure: "Fairleigh Luce's camping trip with his family was a complete debacle: a storm came up in the middle of the night and blew away his tent. Then, when he and his family tried to finish the night in the car, both kids threw up." However, it still may refer to the breaking up of ice on a river: "The early debacle of the upper Mississippi caught many ice fishermen by surprise."

Word History: Today's Good Word is French débâcle without the hats—or, if you please, leave them on. The French word is a derivation of débâcler "to free up", from Old French desbacler "to unbar", made up of des- "un-" + bacler "to bar". The root of this word came from Latin baculum "rod, bar". This word has the same root found in bacillus and bacterium, both referring to microscopic, rod-like organisms. It turns up in Greek as baktron "staff" and in English as peg. The semantic trip made by this word becomes if we consider ancient (and, in large cities, modern) means of bolting a door with a rod or bar. So unbarring a door would be seen as opening it and releasing anything behind it. The rest is all metaphor. (It would be a debacle were we to forget to thank Ed Pellicciotti for suggesting Today's Good Word; so, thank you, Ed.)
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Postby Slava » Mon Sep 10, 2012 11:33 pm

Way back when, before I learned to make judicious use of the dictionary, I pronounced this one as DEB-a-cle, as I'd never seen the French diacritical marks.

Regarding ice-breaking, this is a common experience in the North of Russia. As the center warms up faster than the North, the military is often called in to bomb the ice. The water flowing out can't go anywhere and thus floods the cities along the banks. Blow up the ice and things get flowing nicely.
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Postby MTC » Tue Sep 11, 2012 6:28 am

Hurricane Katrina might have been a "debarcle" instead of a "debacle" if language thieves had better eyesight.

Specifically, according to Etymoline:

"debar (v.)
early 15c., "to shut out, exclude," from Fr. débarrer, from O.Fr. desbarer (12c., which, however, meant only "to unbar, unbolt," the meaning turned around in French as the de- was felt in a different sense), from des- (see dis-) + barrer "to bar" (see bar (1)). Related: Debarment; debarred."
(underlining added)

If the English wanted to "borrow" (aka "steal") a word from the French which meant "to unbar" or "unbolt," what better choice than Old French "desbarer?" Unbar and unbolt imagery especially suits the geological meaning of "debacle." However, thieves sometimes act in haste, leaving older but choicer items behind. And so we say "debacle" instead of "debarcle." Is this really such a loss? Yes, because "debarcle" might also have described the inadvertent release of dogs from the pound, reason enough in my estimate.

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Postby Perry Lassiter » Tue Sep 11, 2012 10:42 am

My first thought was whether the expression "Katy bar the door" fits in anywhere. My second, on reading the comments, was to remember Dana Stabenow's book "The Thaw'" or something similar. She is an Alaskan writer of a detective series about a woman who lives in a village. The particular book describes the effects of rivers and glaciers breaking up in the spring.

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