THE CABINET OF CALM (2020)

Three years since we first opened The Cabinet of Curiosities, we’re returning with The Cabinet of Calm—a collection of typically unusual and obscure words, this time intended to provide a little solace, comfort and reassurance in difficult times. 

Each of the fifty chapters here are dedicated some of the toughest, most challenging, and most worrying times any of us can face. There are chapters here dedicated to despair and sadness; loss and grief; homesickness and heartache; exhaustion and a loss of motivation; concern about the state of the world, and how perilously balanced our planet and its environment currently are. To each of these topics, however, is attached one of the dictionary’s more unusual words or phrases—each of which, it is hoped, can give us some much-needed aid, reassurance and optimism.

 

The words included here aren’t cure-alls, as such, but rather just some calmative, curative food for thought. These are words to soothe an unquiet mind. To inspire and motivate our creativity. To encourage fellow-thinking and community spirit, and to give us fresh hope for the future. In essence, collected here are nothing but kind words, for these unkind times.

Read on for a sample chapter, or click here to order a copy. 

EUCATASTROPHE
A word for when you’re feeling pessimistic

 

While the optimist likes to look positively to the future, the pessimist worries about the unknown, and fears the constant potential for calamity or tragedy. If you’re naturally something of a pessimist, then snapping out of that way of thinking can be more easily said than done. The more hopeful you are, the pessimist thinks, the worse it will feel when those hopes are inevitably dashed – because after all, disaster and failure are surely lurking around every corner.

It is true that we can never know what the future has in store for us. But what the pessimist forgets by embracing the constant threat of catastrophe, is that there is always the equally constant potential for a eucatastrophe.

Derived from a Greek word for ‘good’, that initial eu– in eucatastrophe is a familiar prefix in English, used to form words bearing some sense of positivity, favourability or worthiness. So euphony is pleasant sound. A euphemism is a more acceptable phrasing of a questionable concept. A eucalyptus tree is literally ‘well-covered’ in leaves. And that initial eu– is often employed to create words acting as opposites or counterparts for other more negative equivalents. The opposite of ‘dysfunction’ is eufunction. The opposite of ‘dyspepsia’ is eupesia. The opposite of ‘stress’ is eustress. And the opposite of a ‘catastrophe’ is a eucatastrophe.

The word catastrophe itself comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to overturn’. Originally it was a literary or theatrical term, used to refer a dramatic upheaval in a plotline that brings about or hastens the conclusion of a story, and it was from this early notion of a tumultuous and often unexpected event that the word eventually came to be used in the early eighteenth century of any sudden, unforeseen or extensive disaster. Based on this notion of an entirely unforeseen disaster, Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien invented the word eucatastrophe to act as its wholly positive counterpart.

In 1939, Tolkien was invited to give a lecture on the history of fairy-tales at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Although the text of Tolkien’s original lecture is lost, two years later he returned to the subject by chance in a letter to his then twenty-year-old son Christopher. Writing that he had recently heard a sermon in church about a child who had been miraculously cured of tuberculosis at a healing spa in France, Tolkien explained that he had been ‘deeply moved’ by the story, and had felt a ‘peculiar emotion . . . quite unlike any other sensation’ he had experienced before. ‘All of a sudden,’ he continued, ‘I realised what it was: the very thing that I have been trying to write about, and explain in that fairy-story essay . . . For it, I coined the word “eucatastrophe”: the sudden happy turn in a story, which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.’

In 1947, Tolkien finally adapted his St Andrews lecture into an article entitled On Fairy Stories, in which he expanded on this idea of a wholly positive and fortuitous ‘turn’ of events. Moments like these, he wrote, offer ‘a piercing glimpse of joy and heart’s desire’, and when one turns up in the plot of a book or film, it ‘for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through’.

So, while a catastrophe is a grand, unexpected disaster, a eucatastrophe is an equally unexpected but entirely wonderful change of circumstances. It reminds us not merely to focus on the chance of some future disaster, but on the opportunities presented by a sudden and entirely positive shift or event. There need not be a catastrophe lurking around the corner, then, but a eucatastrophe.

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