When disaster strikes: ways of describing bad events

Caspar Benson/GettyImages

by Liz Walter

First, apologies for the gloomy subject! However, we can’t read the news without being aware of terrible things that happen in the world, and there is a rich selection of vocabulary to describe them, including some nice collocations.

Starting at the less serious end of the scale, if we describe an event or activity as a debacle, we mean that it was a complete failure, often in a way that is embarrassing for the person who organized it. A great collocation for something like this is unmitigated disaster, meaning that there was nothing at all good about it:

We have learned lessons from the debacle of last year’s team building exercise.

The president’s tour was an unmitigated disaster.

A disaster is an event that causes great harm, unhappiness etc. Calamity and catastrophe are similar, but even more emphatic. All of these words can describe serious harm or be used humorously for exaggeration:

Aid workers are struggling to help in the disaster area.

A series of calamities led to him losing his home.

Catastrophe! I’ve burned the sausages!

The word tragedy emphasizes the sadness of a situation. A great collocation is to say that tragedy/disaster strikes:

This drought is an absolute tragedy for the country.

They were on holiday in Bali when tragedy/disaster struck.

Adjectives to describe disasters include disastrous, tragic and catastrophic. We also talk about the devastating effects/consequences of bad events:

They made the disastrous decision to shoot.

He never recovered from the tragic death of his son.

They are trying to deal with the devastating effects of the earthquake.

We can emphasize the aspect of human suffering by using adjectives such as heartbreaking or traumatic, while people who have suffered tragedies give harrowing accounts of their experiences:

The papers are full of heartbreaking images of people fleeing war zones.

These children have experienced highly traumatic events.

Witnesses gave harrowing accounts of the terrorist attack.

There are several ways to talk about events in which people die. A neutral expression is to say that an event claims lives. Carnage is a much more emotive word to describe the death of many people. Similarly, and slightly more informally, we could describe a scene where a lot of people have been killed or injured as a bloodbath:

Yesterday’s plane crash claimed six lives.

Riots in the capital led to carnage, with several people dead.

The fight ended in a bloodbath.

I hope you will find some useful vocabulary here. Sadly, there are so many awful events and this post could have been much longer, so please feel free to add your own ideas in the comment section below.

18 thoughts on “When disaster strikes: ways of describing bad events

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