Sorry for my Thursday lapse, word fans. I have no excuse, really, with the possible exception of the fact that I had to boil forty-two thousand eggs for my kids to decorate and I just wasn’t having a great day for super-Melissa time management. Some days I’ve got it, some days I don’t. Anyway, on an obscurely related note (i.e., the note of symbolic renewal of life following a time of hardship and/or death), John and I have been spending most of our joint free time envisioning the rebirth of humanity following various catastrophes. Therefore…
Don’t lose any respect for me over this, but I’m a Buffy fan. I know, I know. Teenage girl kills vampires with witty dialogue, an interesting fashion sense, and a pointy stick? Averting an apocalypse at least once a season? But the writing just slays me sometimes, one of my favorite lines being when Buffy’s new special ops love-interest finds out how many evil creatures she’s done away with: “Suddenly I find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.”
For the record, there is no plural. Our six-year-old nephew reportedly understands this, as he recently informed his mother and nana that there is no point in speculating about the post-apocalyptic world because, “Everyone will be dead, Nana. You won’t see it. It’s the end of the world.” It’s an intuitively logical point: There is no plural for apocalypse because there will only ever be one apocalypse. If anyone survives to debate the grammar of what to call it when the next one rolls around, it wasn’t really the apocalypse.
“Apocalypse” has not, however, always been without a plural. Although it comes to us from Greek through Late Latin (think Catholic church) into Middle English and has therefore long been associated with the biblical judgment day, its original Greek form apokalupsis simply means “a revelation.” Being a noun with a plosive stem, if I’m remembering my one year of Attic Greek correctly, the nominative plural would probably have been apokalupses. If you want to turn that into a learned English plural, I supposed “apocalypses” would be your safest bet. Don’t quote me on that to a classics professor, though. Especially not mine…
The noun, I can say with the full backing of the AHCD, was formed from our classic paring: verb + prefix (preposition). You know apo-, even if you don’t think you do. He’s the Greek first cousin to our old friend ab- and roughly means, in this case “un-.” Kaluptein means “to cover.” Therefore, apokaluptein means what class? That’s right: “to uncover.”
So how did a word that means “to uncover” come to be synonymous with the complete destruction of the human race? Whether you’re referring to the uncovering of the ultimate truth of the universe to humanity, or the uncovering of the truth of human nature to the ultimate authority, all I can say is that I am clearly not the only pessimistic, misanthropic wordslinger in the human race.