And then, at the pinnacle, to encounter an insurmountable obstacle – to feel as though tentacles are pulling you to manacle you in the nearest receptacle, and you only hope some oracle can foresee a miracle…
What a debacle.
Whaddya mean debacle doesn’t have the stress on the first syllable?
Huh. What a reversal.
Which it certainly is. We know what we mean when we call something a debacle – ideally matching the pronunciation of the French original, débâcle, at least as far as saying it with the stress on the second syllable. We know that it means there has been, uh, a feces-fan interface. The balloon has gone up. Things have gone pointy-shaped. A prime minister’s entire cabinet has resigned, perhaps. Or half of a country’s internet access has whoopsed out for a whole day due, apparently, to a bad software update.
But since we’ve trashed the assonance with “receptacle,” what can we make of the word?
It’s French, yes. And you can see that it starts with dé-, which we generally expect to mean ‘un-’ or ‘not’ or ‘back’ or ‘down’ or ‘from’ or a sense in that line. You can also see that little hat, the circumflex on the â, which in French typically means that there was once an s after the vowel but people stopped saying it and then stopped writing it. So is the bâcle from bascle? Perhaps basculer, meaning ‘tip over’ or ‘reverse’ or ‘go ass over teakettle’ (from bas ‘down’ and cul ‘end, butt’)?
Nah, sorry. Bâcler means ‘bar’ or ‘block’ or ‘dam up (as with an ice jam)’ and, as far as the usual sources can tell, comes from baculum, Latin for ‘rod’ – though the circumflex does seem to have shown up to represent a deleted s: there was a verb debascler meaning ‘clear a harbour by getting ships unloaded so they can go and other ships can take their place’. Which is a bit harder to trace to baculum, but it does make sense as an origin for debacle.
It does? It does. Because the original catastrophic sense referred to the breaking up of an ice jam in a river, releasing a sudden violent and destructive torrent of water. That’s the key sense of débâcle in French, and it’s also the first sense of debacle in English, when it was borrowed in the early 1800s.
Which certainly puts a complexion on the word. Many of us may have thought of a debacle as something that happens when things seem to be going fine but someone screws up royally – oops, you deleted your production server? But no. A debacle, in the original image, is something that was almost certain to happen eventually – ice jams aren’t known for just gradually easing off. It was always just a question of when, and how bad, and who and what was going to be hurt worst. If you have an ice jam, the best thing is of course to clear it as quickly as possible; the longer it goes, the worse the flash flood will be when it finally releases.
And this is undeniably the lesson for people in politics: if there’s a debacle, it’s more than likely because you’ve been sweeping things under the rug for so long that it upset the tea cart (mixed metaphors? moi?). But it can also be a lesson for people in other areas. A catastrophe often happens because there was a built-in weak point (sometimes several) without sufficient redundancy or support to handle a failure. Things fall apart; that’s the second law of thermodynamics. It’s not whether, it’s when and how, and how prepared are you for it?
In short, “debacle” is the sound of your carefully balanced stack of stones collapsing when a gust hits it. So you should proactively tackle any weak points, rather than just getting your hackles up or slapping a bit of spackle on it, lest you be shackled to the result. Or flooded, or swept away.