|The North Saskatchewan River near Edmonton, April 2020 photo courtesy Sherry Dawn Knettle|
My friends in Western Canada have been posting pictures of nearby bodies of water with the ice going out.
It's "spring breakup", as we call it in Canada.
When I give talks about Canadian English, I always joke that non-Canadians, on hearing us talk about "spring breakup", must wonder, "What, they do that every year in Canada? March 1st, time to turf the old boyfriend and get a new one!"
I don't know if other varieties of English even have a word for this. Let me know if you do! Perhaps you just call it the "spring thaw".
This sense of "breakup" has existed in Canada since the mid-19th century. French has had a word for the phenomenon since the 1600s, one that may surprise you: débâcle.
Débâcle probably ultimately goes back to the Latin baculum (stick), via the French verb bâcler meaning "lock or bar (a door etc.) with a stick" and thence "close down navigation on a river". Débâcler therefore meant "open up navigation on a river". One can see how important a notion this would be in New France, which was likely locked up by ice from November through the end of March.
But débâcle also has a more specific sense, because the phenomenon can have catastrophic consequences. When the ice floes accumulate at a narrow point in the river or at its mouth, they back up the water behind them, causing flooding upstream. When the pressure of the rushing water and accumulated blocks of ice becomes too great, the ice jam will give way, causing a destructive rush of water and ice, and flooding downstream. This also is a débâcle.
(In Ottawa, city work crews literally blow up the Rideau River every year to prevent these ice jams and resulting inundations. I used to live near the river in Ottawa, and it was always the first sign of spring: "Let me just flip the calendar to March the Fir..." BOOOOM!!!)
Not surprisingly then, by the early 19th century débâcle took on a figurative meaning in French: a sudden change in a situation which results in a panicked rushing or fleeing, a catastrophic stampede. From there it was just a short step to "catastrophe, rout".
Shortly thereafter, English adopted this figurative meaning of debacle, originally to mean a sudden downfall accompanied by a stampede, but now simply a usually sudden and ignominious failure, a fiasco. I don't think there is any need to use an acute accent and circumflex when spelling this word in English.
For synonyms of debacle, see my post about catastrophe and disaster.
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