Noun > Debacle
Think of a frozen river, and how the ice bars the water from moving.
In Latin, bacculare literally meant “to unbar.”
Now imagine the ice in the river melting in spring: the river has been unbarred, or freed. So you can see how, when bacculare entered French, it became débâcler, which meant “to free,” and its noun form, débâcle, meant “a freeing, or breaking up, of ice in a river,” as well as “the huge flood that takes place when the ice breaks in a river.”
Then, around 1802, probably because this French débâcle sounded so awesome and had such a useful meaning (“a violent flood”), we took it into English.
In English, a debacle can be, quite literally, the breaking up of ice in a river, or the flooding that happens as the ice breaks up. But more often we use the word “debacle” figuratively to mean “a sudden violent collapse, defeat, or failure of any kind.”
Part of speech:
Noun, the countable kind: “Their debacle was so embarrassing for them;” “This has truly been a debacle.”
Just the plural, “debacles.”
how to use it:
This word is common, with a formal tone. We can use it to label any kind of disastrous event or series of events, especially when it involves everything falling apart swiftly and completely.
For instance, when we’re talking about sports, we might refer to a terrible game, a terrible season, or even a terrible move or play as a debacle. Here’s Golf Digest: “Scott was off with a far better opening tee shot than yesterday’s debacle.” And here’s the Seattle Times: “The Gators offered no excuses for last year’s debacle in Gainesville, a 38-17 drubbing.”
Aside from sports, if you poke around in other sections of a newspaper, you’ll see the word “debacle” applied to all kinds of terrible events and outcomes, both silly and serious: the sinking of a boat; the failure of an awkward advertisement campaign; the tendency of a certain type of cell phone to, you know, explode without warning.
And debacles can take places in our personal lives, too: “The date was a compete debacle;” “This was supposed to be a fluffy pancake, but it’s just a runny debacle.”
Often we’ll put a descriptive word before “debacle,” as in “a financial debacle,” “his political debacle,” “that fashion debacle,” “the fake ID debacle,” “that whole embarrassing debacle with the stacks of cold Big Macs,” etc.
“As the media see it, President Trump’s (sparsely attended) Tulsa rally was the biggest political debacle in recorded history.”
— Howard Kurtz, Fox News, 23 June 2020
“On 26 July 1972, under the headline ‘Syphilis Victims in US Study Went Untreated for 40 Years,’ the story splashed across the nation’s newspapers. Now labelled ‘a moral nightmare,’ the needless deaths and debilities of the men and their families were detailed. Within the year, the study was stopped, the US Senate and a federal panel investigated, and a lawsuit was filed. The debacle led to the creation of federal guidelines for ethical research.”
— Susan M. Reverby, Nature, 18 March 2019