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I know that "great" used to be used to indicate "very large" for disasters and other calamities, such as the Great Fire of London, the Great Chicago Fire and the Great War. Is it common for native speakers of English (as opposed to say, the government of Japan in using the term "Great East Japan Earthquake") to use "great" for calamities these days?

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They should. But only as a way to identify the specific calamity. So, after many years pass, one would ask: "How did he die?" "In the Chicago fire" "Which one?" "The Great Chicago fire!" –  SmokerAtStadium Mar 13 '13 at 9:50
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In the presence of words such as awesome, catastrophic, incredible, unbelievable, viral, etc, the use of "Great" now usually means "It's a pleasant surprise." –  Blessed Geek Mar 13 '13 at 10:21
    
While you should probably not read too much into the Great American Beer Fest, you might also consider also the great apes, the great whales, the Great Lakes, the Great Depression, the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Salt Lake, the Great Sand Dunes, the Great Gatsby, and Great Britain. And maybe Great Caesar’s Ghost. –  tchrist Mar 13 '13 at 12:23
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@tchrist the only one of those that's a disaster or a calamity is the Great Depression, and that was in the '30s. –  Andrew Grimm Mar 13 '13 at 12:34
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It may not be common, but it is certainly not unknown. The Great Storm of 16 October 1987 is an example of fairly recent vintage. Because such calamities are rare, one would not necessarily expect many "Great" events.

The Great Storm of 1987 occurred on the night of 15–16 October, when gale-force winds caused casualties and extensive damage on both sides of the English Channel, as a severe depression in the Bay of Biscay moved north-east, affecting the densely-populated London and Home Counties area. Forests, parks, roads and railways were littered with fallen trees, and the National Grid suffered heavy damage, leaving thousands without power. At least 22 people were killed in England and France, and a gust of 106 kn (196 km/h; 122 mph) was recorded in Gorleston, Norfolk.

Images of the Great Storm

[And as a native speaker from Sussex who was woken up by the house gently swaying in the breeze, I can vouch that the event is indeed called Great.]

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I flew into Gatwick Airport the morning after. None of us knew anything about it when we'd boarded the plane in Greece; looking down over Kent and Sussex was awe-inspiring, to say the least. Definitely great (as in very big, not very enjoyable). –  FumbleFingers Mar 13 '13 at 15:58
    
Hmmm, "The Chicago Blizzard of 1967" which dumped 23" of snow on the city and surrounding region (much of it drifted up to 2nd floor windows I recall) was not apparently a calamity enough to be dubbed "Great". –  Kristina Lopez Mar 13 '13 at 18:02
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Although a previous answer suggests that “because such calamities are rare, one would not necessarily expect many Great events”, in some contexts such expressions proliferate. For example, in the opening minutes of The Vicar of Dibley #104 [The Window and the Weather, with partial transcript at imdb, and first few minutes on youtube] the following expressions are heard:
• The Great Storm (0:35–1:20)
• The Great Wind
• The Great Snow (2:15–3:00)
• The Great Frost
• The Great Freeze 〃
The conceit is that villagers have memories of numerous “Great” events, but do not all assign the same names to the same events.

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Our current economic doldrums have been referred to as the Great Recession, obviously in comparison to the economy of the 1929-1941 period, but true in its own right. (At least on the Western side of the pond it may finally be ended.)

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