Thursday, December 10, 2015

Words defined: What is a disaster?

Words have different meanings to different people. Often it is because of our background and culture that we see things differently. Words translated from language to another can also mean different things. Thus, it is important to be sure that we know the definition of words so that, when we talk to each other, we know what we are talking about.

Words can be defined many ways depending on what means we use to define them.  Here are 11 different ways to define words. Then I show how these ways of defining words can be used in defining the word "disaster."

Google definition of "disaster"

11 ways to define a word

  1. A nominal definition is a definition explaining what the word currently means, usually a dictionary definition.
  2. A real definition expresses the real nature of the thing. Properties are similar to real definition, because they define the nature of the object or thing. Real, for Locke, is “what makes something what it is, and in the case of physical substances, it is the underlying physical cause of the object's observable qualities.” A nominal definition is “an abstract idea that we make when we identify similar qualities shared by objects; the nominal essence is the idea of those shared similarities” (Locke on Real Essence. (n.d.).  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved December 8, 2015 from
  3. Synonyms are other words which have the same or a similar meaning, usually found in a thesaurus.
  4. Ordinal definitions use numbers to designate events or objects.
  5. Definition using illustrations or examples
  6. Definition by comparison or analogy.
  7. Functional definitions describe the purpose, task or activity. Similar to operational definitions, they may relate to the way in which something works or operates.
  8. Operational definitions describe the process, how something is used, works or operates.
  9. Causal definitions describes a person or thing that gives rise to an action, phenomenon, or condition; the cause.
  10. An outcome definition provides the result or consequence of an action or activity.
  11. What it is not. This kind of definition tells what the event or object being defined is not.
Nominal definition
A disaster is a sudden event, such as an accident or a natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life. (Disaster. (n.d.) Retrieved December 8, 2015 from

Real definition
A disaster destroys life, property, and creates chaos. For example, "3,000 people died in the earthquake, which caused a hundred billion dollars in damage and shut down the country for over a year.”

Synonyms for disaster are catastrophe, calamity, cataclysm, tragedy, act of God, holocaust or accident.

Ordinal definition 
Disasters are frequently ranked by severity, using scales, the number of deaths, injuries, and socio-economic costs. For example, listing the 10 worst disasters in history provides an ordinal definition of disasters. The categorization of disasters scales (the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale; F-Scale or Enhanced Fujita Scale for tornadoes) is an example of ordinal definition.

The following example provides both an ordinal definition as well as a definition by illustration or example.
While 1981 and 1982 broke all records, the floods of 1983 ranked as the worst disaster in Utah history (Floods. (n.d.). In Utah History to Go. Retrieved December 8, 2015 from

1983 Flood in Salt Lake City - Deseret News Photo

Definition by comparison or analogy.
“After throwing a scare into the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area, Hurricane Charley rapidly intensified and took a right turn into Charlotte Harbor as an intense Category 4 hurricane on Friday, Aug. 13, 2004. Charley was the strongest hurricane to strike the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew raked parts of South Florida in 1992.” (Weather. Com. (2014, August 18). 10 worst hurricanes in American history. Retrieved from )

Functional definition
While most disasters cause devastation and some result in irreparable harm, other kinds function to benefit the ecosystem. “Fire is part of a cycle in most ecosystems. It reduces dead vegetation, stimulates new growth, and improves habitat for wildlife…. With fire suppression, fire was removed from the cycle and ecosystems began to get out of balance” National Park Service. (n.d.). Benefits of Fire. U.S. department of the Interior. Retrieved December 9, 2015 from

This operation definition also considers causes.
Disasters like tornadoes, thunderstorms and hurricanes begin with the interaction between high and low pressure. Sometimes this interaction occurs as sea temperature changes. Rain and wind come with these weather systems, result in flooding. Deforestation and soil erosion can add to the flooding (Why do natural disasters happen? (n.d.). In Retrieved December 9, 2015 from

Result or outcome definition.
A natural disaster can result in property damage, death and injuries, and financial losses. The impact is greatest in developing countries. More than 95 percent of the deaths resulting from natural disasters occur in developing countries. Also, the economic impact is 20 times greater (as a percent of GDP) than in industrialized countries (Disaster. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 9, 2015 from

What it is not. 
While a disaster is an emergency, not all emergencies are disasters. Like a disaster an emergency is unexpected, and may lead to “a dangerous situation requiring immediate action,” but it doesn’t always have the great damage or loss of life that comes with a disaster (Emergency. (n.d.) Retrieved December 9, 2015 from

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