By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘fatal’ is from the Latin fātum, literally meaning ‘that which has been spoken’, from the past participle of the verb fārī meaning ‘to speak’. The idea of fate is closely bound up with pronouncements: someone decrees our fate, and something that is fatal was originally something destined or fated to happen.
Of course, over time the word ‘fatal’ came to be associated with the most decisive and final fate of all: death. We are all fated to die one day; it is perhaps the one ‘fate’ we can be sure of in life.
In ancient Greece, people personified fate as three female entities known as the Fates, named Clotho (‘The Spinner’, whence we get the words cloth and clothes), Lachesis (‘The Allotter’) and Atropos (‘The Unturning’ or ‘The Inflexible’, because Atropos was the one who severed our thread when we died).
So, the word fatal can mean both ‘destined to happen’ and ‘mortal or deadly’. What other ways are there of conveying that something is fatal? Let’s take a look at some of the best synonyms for ‘fatal’.
Most people would agree that the word DEADLY is the commonest synonym for fatal in the sense of ‘something which will cause death’.
So a decision which is made and which leads to someone’s death is both deadly and fatal. The bite of a venomous snake may prove either deadly or fatal to the victim if they don’t receive antitoxins.
LETHAL is another synonym with a very similar meaning. The word is from a Latin word meaning deadly. So a deadly poison might also be described as a lethal poison.
In the realm of illness, a number of fatal synonyms are present: a disease which will prove fatal because it will cause the sufferer’s death might be described as MORTAL, TERMINAL (from the Latin terminus, ‘end’), or INCURABLE.
Moving beyond the field of diseases and illness, there are quite a few useful synonyms for fatal which convey the idea of something being capable of serious destruction. So it might also be described as DESTRUCTIVE, RUINOUS, DISASTROUS, CALAMITOUS, CATASTROPHIC, or CATACLYSMIC – all of which suggest that, even if the thing described won’t actually cause death, there will be significant and severe costs incurred.
So my fatal decision to ignore the warning signs might also be described as my catastrophic decision (and so on). The word catastrophe is from the Greek meaning ‘downward turn’, denoting that things have taken a turn for the worse. Cataclysmic, meanwhile, is from the Greek for ‘wash down’ (i.e., deluge or flood), and was initially applied to any great flood, though especially the Biblical Flood from the Book of Genesis.
Disastrous is also worth mentioning, since disaster has a curious origin, too. It’s thought to be from the prefix dis- and the word astro, meaning ‘star’. A disaster is something ill-fated because it is the result of an unfortunate alignment of the stars or the unfavourable aspect of a particular star: the word has its roots in ancient astrological beliefs.
Of course, something so destructive as to be fatal (whether in the sense of ‘deadly’ or just extremely damaging) can also be described as causing harm. So the adjectives MALIGNANT, HARMFUL, BALEFUL, BANEFUL, and PERNICIOUS can all be used to convey this idea of harm, and are near-synonyms for fatal.
TRAGIC is a word that suggests death, and often involves it. At the very least it describes something which inspires feelings of deep sadness.
The word tragic is derived from the Greek tragedy, which is thought to mean ‘goat song’ (the second half of the word is related to our word ode for a poem or song).
Tragic drama was invented in ancient Greece, and was so named perhaps because a goat was offered as a prize in the contests for best play (or, alternatively, because a male goat was sacrificed as part of the festival). So a fatal accident can be described as a tragic accident.
However, if we’re talking about fatal as in of great importance, we need different synonyms. After all, something might be fatal and yet not cause death or even severe harm: it may simply be an important moment in the fate of a person’s life, their career, a company’s financial prospects, and so on.
Here, useful synonyms are CRUCIAL, CRITICAL, FATEFUL, FATED (and ILL-FATED for bad decisions or events), and DECISIVE.
Finally, sticking with this idea of fate (as opposed to death), we should mention a couple of other synonyms for fatal which focus on the idea of something already decreed by fate. In such instances, there are no decisions to make, or at least none that matter, since the outcome is already decided by outside forces. The words DESTINED and INEVITABLE can both be used for such a situation.