ln some parts of the world, violent earthquakes sometimes make the ground open up and swallow people. My question is: is there a word or phrase to describe this appalling scene?

  • 1
    You could also try verbing sarlacc. (On second thought, probably only appropriate in a fictional setting, not when real people are involved.)
    – 1006a
    Jun 30, 2016 at 16:40
  • swallowed up, you already have it.
    – Lambie
    Jul 1, 2016 at 16:34

6 Answers 6


The following biblical passage uses language very similar to your own:

the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions (Numbers 16:32)

This passage should convince you that there is nothing wrong with plainly saying "the earth swallowed the people."

You could also say:

the earth opened its maw to swallow them

where maw means "the jaws or throat of a voracious animal."

You could also say:

The earth devoured them

where devour means "eat (food or prey) hungrily or quickly."

All of these examples anthropomorphize the earth (that is, depict the earth with human characteristics like having a mouth). There is nothing wrong with this technique and it can be quite effective, especially when combined with evocative words like maw and devour, which connote viciousness and gluttony.

  • The language in the qoute from the Bible is simple and clear. They are the same as those in my post. I was wondering if there is a formal equivalent.Thanks anyway. Jun 30, 2016 at 4:27
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    Mido Mido, I've given you other options too. But the reason I gave the bible quote was to convince you that "the earth opened its mouth and swallowed people" can already be construed as a phrase in some sense, given the wild popularity of the bible. It is a phrase conventionally used to describe the types of scene you point to.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jun 30, 2016 at 4:30
  • 1
    You are right. I do agree with you. I am just looking for a strong synonym or phrase. Jun 30, 2016 at 4:37

Engulf is a good word for this. American Heritage:

To swallow up or overwhelm by or as if by overflowing and enclosing: The spring tide engulfed the beach houses.

More generally, a scene like that might be described as a cataclysm.

something that causes great destruction, violence, etc.

(from Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary)

  • Good word. So, can we say : Suddenly, the earthquake engulfed all of the houses and people of the village. Jun 30, 2016 at 4:44
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    I'd argue that earthquakes don't directly engulf things; the results of an earthquake -- cracks (chasms), sinkholes, mudslides, tsunamis, etc. do. Jun 30, 2016 at 8:20
  • Engulf is to surround. This is not a good answer.
    – Lambie
    Jul 1, 2016 at 16:34
  • @Lambie Engulf is to surround. Surround would also be a reasonable answer, if a bit less apt.
    – DCShannon
    Jul 5, 2016 at 17:16
  • @RogerLipscombe That thinking would apply to all of these answers, as it is the cracks, sinkholes et cetera that do the swallowing as well.
    – DCShannon
    Jul 5, 2016 at 17:17

Engulf and Swallow are good options. For variety, here's another one:


from MW

1: to enclose or enfold completely with or as if with a covering

from the Free Dictionary

tr.v. en·vel·oped, en·vel·op·ing, en·vel·ops
1. To wrap, enclose, or cover: "Accompanying the darkness, a stillness envelops the city" (Curtis Wilkie).

2. To surround: The troops enveloped the town.

This term gives a visual of the ground rising up and surrounding the people, much like engulf.

You might say:

During the earthquake, the ground opened up and enveloped the people.

Note that this is not pronounced like 'envelope'. The emphasis is squarely on the second syllable.


The victims were violently devoured by the chasm.

  • " devoured by the chasm" is a good expression. Thanks. Jun 30, 2016 at 4:55
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    This answer was automatically flagged as low-quality because of its length and content. For help writing a good answer, see How to Answer.
    – MetaEd
    Jun 30, 2016 at 17:47
  • devoured by the chasm is poetic
    – Lambie
    Jul 1, 2016 at 16:33

I'd suggest subsume. It means absorb, and its origin is the latin subsumere, whose parts roughly translate to take from below.

Include or absorb (something) in something else


The National Post is reporting that all four members of the Prefontaine household have died after their house was subsumed by a sinkhole.

To be honest though, I think simply using swallow is more commonly used. If you google "killed sinkhole", you will find article after article saying that some person was swallowed by a sinkhole.

  • 1
    Yes, but people are not subsumed. Only things.
    – Lambie
    Jul 1, 2016 at 16:33
  • @Lambie - I don't agree. People can be subsumed. A search of "he was subsumed" or "she was subsumed" returns many hits of people being subsumed into one thing or another. Jul 1, 2016 at 17:04
  • No, people can be subsumed UNDER a list; but people cannot be subsumed by a sinkhole. Your definition says: include or absorb. If you fall into a fault line chasm created by an earthquake, you are not subsumed. It does not not fly. Swallowed by a sinkhole, yes.
    – Lambie
    Jul 5, 2016 at 17:44

Perhaps entomb:

transf. and fig. To enclose as in a tomb; to overwhelm; to bury. Also absol. OED

Example usage:

The earth entombed them / They were entombed by the earth

Alternatively, you could consider figurative usages of consume or ingest, presenting the earth as a living being.

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