Etymology and Definitions

The word comes from the Latin apocalypsis and was borrowed into Greek. As it is a biblical word, it likely came into English from Greek around the time of the advent of the printing press and/or the publication of the King James Bible. The word had many spelling variants during late Middle English since spelling was not standardized until centuries later. Some of these variants listed in the OED include apocalips(e), appocalyppce, appocalipse, apocolyps,apocolips, pocalyps, apocalyps, apocalippis, appocalypse, apocalypse. The word itself can refer to the biblical Apocalypse (also known as the book of Revelation), any revelation or disclosure of something previously unknown, or more recently, disasters that cause “irreversible damage to human society or the environment.” [1]

Related Terms

Synonyms for the noun apocalypse include armageddon, eschaton, final days, last days, end of time, end of days, end time, and so forth. Terms related to the adjective apocalyptic include fateful, oracular, ominous, prophetic, revealing, predictive, calamitous, and direful. [2][3] This vocabulary shares a common futuristic tone; there is an overarching anticipation of the inevitable in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature. This common tone is what sets apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic apart from strictly dystopian literature; while apocalyptic and dystopian literature both focus on the fall of society’s structure, apocalyptic literature tends to focus more on the physical ending of the world at large because of some kind of natural disaster. Also, whereas dystopian literature primarily exposes societal flaws of mankind, apocalyptic literature studies the flaws of mankind as a whole, especially in the wake of disaster. Because of the religious origins of the word apocalypse, apocalyptic literature is often more mystical in nature compared to dystopian literature.

Evolution of Usage

The word apocalypse in literature was originally used in religious texts only, especially Judeo-Christian writings. The Bible contains many examples of apocalyptic literature, especially in Revelation (called the “Apocalypse” in the Greek Bible) and the Book of Daniel. [4] These texts always contained spiritual prophecies of the end of times. Writers focused on the inevitable ending that would come to this world, and this ending was caused by a spiritual catalyst.[5]

Historical corpus data backs up this usage trend. According to the Early English Books Online corpus and the Corpus of Historical American English, most occurrences of apocalypse appear in religious texts or contexts. The word appears in print 741 times between the 1530s and 1690s, especially the 1680s—out of 252 occurrences of apocalypse in the 1680s, all of them refer to the Apocalypse as a book of scripture. [6] Apocalypse referring to the scriptural book or event remained largely the accepted usage through the 1800s, though with the secularization of society in the 1900s, the word started to shift away from the scriptural in favor of a more generic/nonreligious end of the world. By the 1950s, half of the occurrences of apocalypse in print are metaphorical—hinting but not specifically religious—and by the 1960s and ’70s, the word is used primarily to refer to a nonspecific ending of the world, with little mention of any religious apocalypse. [7]

In contemporary texts, apocalyptic literature still contains this focus on the end of times. Like the religious texts in this genre, current apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic literature explores the ideas of how mankind will live during or after the apocalypse. In contemporary apocalyptic literature, the end of times is often caused by a disaster in medical science or an extreme natural disaster. Doomsday cults are sometimes seen in the plots. Though the spiritual element is not as driving as it was in earlier apocalyptic texts, a mystical tone is often present, as “religious fear has a long and rich history in children’s literature.” [8] However, this element is not always present in contemporary apocalyptic texts.

Another difference between early apocalyptic texts and contemporary apocalyptic texts is the timeframe in which the writing takes place. In early literature of the genre, most of the writing was prophetic and futuristic. It was an imminent occurrence that had not yet taken place. In contemporary apocalyptic literature, the setting often focuses on the events of the apocalypse as they are actually occurring, or what the world would be like in the aftermath of the apocalypse. Contemporary writers of apocalyptic texts often explore the possibilities of the prophecies of early apocalyptic writings fulfilled.

Apocalypse in Young Adult Literature

Common themes in apocalyptic young adult literature involve survival, the importance of family relationships, lack of government or stable societies, existence in a world without adults, isolation, fatalism, and darkness vs. light. The writings often focus on how the teen protagonist makes sense of a world in chaos with no structure. Authors highlight what they believe to be the key elements in a teen’s life during or after an apocalypse. These key elements include romance, physical well-being, the fight to stay optimistic, families, friendship, and the battle to leave the trivial behind in place of basic survival skills. [9]

Apocalyptic themes have become widely popular since 2000, and especially since 2010. The surge of adolescent apocalyptic literature in between 2000-2010 connects with the media hype surrounding the turn of the century. This trend reflects the society in which we live, prompting young adults to ponder on the issues of the world we live in. [10] Trilogies such as Scott Westerfield’s The Uglies, Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and Ally Condie’s Matched have created a strong foundation for apocalypse as a familiar theme in young adult literature. These stories, bleak as they may appear, offer solutions and hope to teenagers who anticipate a troubled future. [11] In these novels, teenage protagonists find their primary conflicts with nature and the society in which they participate.

See Also

For a list of apocalyptic young adult novels, see the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library online: http://www.cmlibrary.org/readers_club/features/feature.asp?id=200

Good Reads List of Apocalyptic Novels: http://www.goodreads.com/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&query=apocalypse


  1. Jump up “apocalypse, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web.
  2. Jump up “apocalypse.” Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web.
  3. Jump up “End time.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Apr. 2015. Web.
  4. Jump up “apocalypse, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web.
  5. Jump up Robert E. Lerner, “apocalyptic literature,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015. Web.
  6. Jump up “apocalypse.” Early English Books Online (EEBO). Brigham Young University, n. d. Web.
  7. Jump up “apocalypse.” Corpus of Historical American English. Brigham Young University, n. d. Web.
  8. Jump up Stewart, Susan Louise. “’Be Afraid or Fried’: Cults and Young Adult Apocalyptic Narratives.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.3 (2011): 318. Web.
  9. Jump up Penny, Laurie. “No wonder teens love stories about dystopian futures—they feel like they’re heading for one.” New Statesman 143:5203 (2014): 19. Web.
  10. Jump up Gurdon, Meghan Cox. “Young Adult Literature’s Sorry State.” USA Today 11 2013: 40­2. ProQuest. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.
  11. Jump up Penny, Laurie. “No wonder teens love stories about dystopian futures—they feel like they’re heading for one.” New Statesman 143:5203 (2014): 19. Web.