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.)