Another March, another health-care crisis, another chance to look at debacle, a French import with connections to spring, medicine, and failure.
I originally wrote about debacle in March 2017, after the failure of the American Health Care Act in Congress, 16 days after it was introduced in committee. This year, we’re seeing debacle in association with responses to the novel and sometimes fatal COVID-19 virus, commonly known as the coronavirus because of the crown-like spikes on the virus’s surface.
Yahoo Entertainment, March 1, 2020
StatNews, February 27, 2020
And here’s Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the government response to the Ebola crisis during the Obama administration:
Adding to the debacle, the bottlenecks on test kits meant that CDC kept the case definition artificially narrow - tied to China - even as cases were expanding globally (and, we now realize, domestically as well). https://t.co/xg40TK7yqt pic.twitter.com/BOXsHnaMva— Jeremy Konyndyk (@JeremyKonyndyk) March 1, 2020
Here’s what I wrote in 2017:
Debacle – it rhymes, roughly, with “the cockle” – was borrowed by English in 1802, according to the OED. At the time, it had a specific meaning imported from its French counterpart, débâcle, which literally means “unbarring” and was used to describe the breaking up of ice on a river.
By the mid-19th century, debacle—minus the diacritical marks—had taken on the general meaning (also present in French) of “downfall” or “disaster.”
Emile Zola’s 1892 novel La Débâcle, set during the Franco-Prussian war, is often translated as The Downfall. But the 2004 film Downfall (Untergang in German), was released in France as La chute (literally “the drop”).
The Middle French origin of debacle was desbacler: “to unbar.” The bacler part of the word comes from Latin baculum (“rod”), which also gave us bacillus, a rod-shaped bacterium. A bacterium is not a virus, but it seems appropriate to have a germ-y connection to debacle.
Debacle Records, an experimental record label in Seattle with a suitably cracked-up wordmark.