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For context; I am an absolute noob with etymology. But I recently had a thought that made by blood run cold.

Q: Are the words "catastrophe" and "atrophy" related?

Looking at Wikipedia led me to their respective Latin words "catastropha" and "atrophia", but this doesn't rule out to me the possibility that these Latin words are related. I believe that these words are both of Greek descent, but I don't know how to trace this.

2 Answers 2

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These words aren't originally from Latin, but from Greek. If you look at their entries in Wiktionary, it points back to the Greek nouns that got borrowed into Latin, and the Greek verbs that begat those nouns.

From there, it seems "catastrophe" comes from κατά ("down") + στρέφω ("turn"), while "atrophy" comes from ἀ- ("not") + τρέφω ("nourish, fatten"). (*)

As far as I know, there's no widely-accepted connection between those two verb roots (which likely go back to PIE *strebʰ- and *dʰrebʰ-, though Beekes of course claims Pre-Greek). Their similarity is likely a coincidence.

(*) Though you can't generally put ἀ- on a verb. You have to make the verb into a noun or adjective first. But I'm skipping over a lot of intermediate steps in the derivation to get to the most basic roots in Greek.

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Good question. One might even wonder whether the "astro" part of the word has something to do with stars, but it doesn't.

The original Greek roots are "trephein" and "strephein", which are very similar. (The "e" and "y" English endings differ only because one of the roots was used as a noun and one as a verb.)

But a quick breakdown of the words into their original Greek parts, separating prefixes (and suffixes if there were any) shows:

  • catastrophe = "cata" + "strophe" = "down" + "turn"
  • atrophy = "a" + "trophe" = "not" + "nourishment"

The Online Etymology Dictionary is a great resource for tracing word origins:

1530s, "reversal of what is expected" (especially a fatal turning point in a drama, the winding up of the plot), from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophē "an overturning; a sudden end," from katastrephein "to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end," from kata "down" (see cata-) + strephein "turn" (from PIE root *streb(h)- "to wind, turn"). The extension to "sudden disaster" is attested from 1748.
catastrophe | Search Online Etymology Dictionary

"a wasting away through lack of nourishment," 1610s (atrophied is from 1590s), from French atrophie, from Late Latin atrophia, from Greek atrophia "a wasting away," abstract noun from atrophos "ill-fed, un-nourished," from a- "not, without" (see a- (3)) + trophē "nourishment," from trephein "to fatten" (see -trophy).
atrophy | Search Online Etymology Dictionary

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    I can see the connection with stars being made in folk etymology, given catastrophe's similarity to disaster.
    – cmw
    Jul 19, 2023 at 14:13
  • The reason catastrophe and atrophy have different endings is because the nouns they were based on have different endings (καταστροφή → catastrophe; ἀτροφία → Latin atrophia → French atrophieatrophy), not because they're used differently in English.
    – Cairnarvon
    Jul 19, 2023 at 18:20

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