Printable Version
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 clear 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.)

Dr. Goodword,

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