From the Barnyard of Crisis

Here’s a couple jokes to get us started:

What kind of cat is always afraid? SCAREDY CAT!

What kind of cat is actually a fish? CATFISH!

What kind of cat likes chaos? CATASTROPHE!

The term “catastrophe” is the dominant motif of the rhetoric of calamity, and is surely, next to its twin “crisis,” one of the most ambiguous and simultaneously ubiquitous terms in public policy circles. The word is derived from the Latin catastropha, meaning kata- ‘down’ and strophē ‘turning.’ The term catastrophe, seemingly added to the English lexicon circa 1755 by Samuel Johnson via the Dictionary of the English Language, can likely be attribute to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, yet found its Genesis in 4th century A.D. with the playwright Donatus. The term catastrophe, of theatrical origins, refers to the unraveling of events after building to epitasis. A catastrophe is distinct from Dr. Nassim Taleb’s “black swan,” our second addition to the barnyard chaos. Defined by Oxford as an “unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically one with extreme consequences,” The difference is the idea of “unpredictable and unforeseen” that makes the black swan unique. “Great and sudden damage” characterizes the catastrophe, suggesting not all catastrophes are unexpected. A more complex world is what moves the world beyond the knowable to the chaotic environ of “terrae incognitae,” land of the unknown.

Shades of Catastrophe…

“危机,” Chinese for crisis, is pronounced wēijī and is a compound word comprised of danger (wei) and opportunity (ji). However, the symbol is often misrepresented in the English pop-culture as crisis and opportunity. Rather, the correct interpretation is a “critical point,” referring to a specific opportunistic moment- a sort of tipping point- resulting from a precarious event. This is similar to the Greek interpretation of krino that follows.

From the Greek word kríno, meaning to judge, assess, or decide, the word crisis as defined by Oxford means “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.” The term denotes a circumstance of dire nature where corrective action is long overdue. Type “crisis” in an internet search engine and you will get a return of nearly 57 million responses in just under .35 seconds, depending on the day. An Internet word-cloud search shows everything from the Ebola crisis to the banking and healthcare “crisis”. Most scholars tend to agree the crisis has three primary characteristics: threat, uncertainty, and urgency. They will also agree there is a thin veil separating a problem from a crisis, observing it is a matter of mere viewpoint and often semantics.

Remember: Catastrophe is the point at which the bottom drops out, although perhaps not completely unexpectedly. Black-swan IS unexpected, marked by extreme consequences. And crisis refers to a turning point- a tenuous cross-roads of sorts where action is required.

There is power in words. Before you hitch yourself to the pedestrian pop-culture of crisis rhetoric bandwagon, consider what you’re saying and where it’s coming from.

“A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grow together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.”
― Henry Hazlitt, Thinking as a Science

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