The word calamity makes me smile (and now I know why)

Words are spe­cial things to me, and when I was a small­er geek and would try to fig­ure out the mean­ing of un­known words, I would of­ten form a men­tal im­age of a word’s mean­ing based on, of­ten times, an­oth­er word it sound­ed like (re­gard­less of whether the two words ac­tu­al­ly had any­thing to do with each oth­er). Sometimes, I’d ac­tu­al­ly use con­text to help de­ci­pher the mean­ing of the mys­tery word, but that wouldn’t al­ways lead me to the right answer.

From time to time, I’d be un­able to shed this first im­pres­sion of a word, which would stick with me even af­ter I would learn the word’s ac­tu­al mean­ing. I’d have these false im­ages some­times pop in­to my mind when I’d hear the word it­self used else­where, even know­ing full well what it re­al­ly means.

So when I found my­self, in more re­cent years, find­ing the word calami­ty to be, of all things, bizarrely amus­ing, I be­gan to se­ri­ous­ly ques­tion how this could be. It’s not like I find calami­ties them­selves fun­ny. And the word is not one I hear used much on a day-to-day ba­sis, and it cer­tain­ly isn’t one used to de­scribe things that are sup­posed to be fun­ny. It’s not near­ly as well-used as its syn­onyms cat­a­stro­phe, dis­as­ter, or even tragedy. So why would I find it dif­fi­cult to sup­press a smirk when hear­ing or read­ing about some­thing that some­one de­scribed as calamitous?

Here’s what tru­ly brought my strange re­la­tion­ship with the word to a head: I used to work for a com­pa­ny with pret­ty strong ties to the Philippines, so when the rather dead­ly Typhoon Ondoy (a.k.a. Ketsana) rolled through the coun­try dur­ing my time em­ployed there, the storm, and its ef­fects, were more than just the head­line or two that they may have been to most Americans. Reading pret­ty ex­ten­sive­ly about the storm, both through news re­ports and first­hand ac­counts from many of our cus­tomers, I no­ticed, a hand­ful of times, many pinoys us­ing calami­ty to de­scribe what had hap­pened there. To what we owe their word choice is not some­thing I un­der­stand or am re­al­ly con­cerned with, ac­tu­al­ly. More im­por­tant was the in­vol­un­tary smirk­ing ef­fect the word had on me.

That I could find my­self amused by some­thing so strange, in the face of tales and pho­tos of death and de­struc­tion, was some­thing I found un­set­tling, so I lat­er thought hard about where this feel­ing like­ly came from. I can’t quite re­mem­ber how I made the con­nec­tion, but it even­tu­al­ly hit me.

That cute lit­tle guy to the right is Calamity Coyote, a char­ac­ter from the early-90s an­i­mat­ed tele­vi­sion se­ries Tiny Toon Adventures, a show that may not have made as last­ing an im­pres­sion on me as oth­ers from the era did, but is one I def­i­nite­ly re­mem­ber watch­ing. (I re­mem­ber the theme song very well, for what that’s worth.) Calamity is al­so a rel­a­tive of Wile E. Coyote, or something.

Lacking any oth­er con­text to ex­plain to my single-digit-aged self the mean­ing of the word calami­ty, I must have as­sumed that it meant… well, some­thing fun­ny! Because, you know, the show was made up of fun­ny char­ac­ters do­ing fun­ny things, so this un­known word must mean some­thing funny.

It makes per­fect sense to me, and feels like the ex­pla­na­tion, the true cre­ation myth I’ve been look­ing for. I can’t imag­ine where else a younger Everett would have come across that word, and it’s not one I’ve seen enough times in the in­ter­ven­ing years, mak­ing this one of those wrong de­f­i­n­i­tions I still just can’t forget.

Do you have any words that have a spe­cial mean­ing to you, one that’s com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent than what the word re­al­ly means? Or per­haps that even tick­le your fun­ny bone in an equal­ly ir­ra­tional way? (I re­al­ly do want to know.)