Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 30, 2020

At the Cataract. Why Is an Eye Like a Waterfall?

I wish I could remember what book I was reading when I first encountered the word “cataract.”

That is, as you likely know, another word for “waterfall,” like this one, St. Mary Falls, in Glacier National Park.

2766 St Mary Falls 680

I remember it was an adventure story, set in some impossibly remote wilderness.

I suspect the book may have been Bomba, The Jungle Boy, at the Giant Cataract.

Published between 1928 and 1936, there were 20 Bomba books: pulp knockoffs intended to capitalize on the popularity of the series of “Tarzan” adventures penned by that prodigious provider of pulp power, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who deserves more credit for all the ideas George Lucas lifted from his “John Carter of Mars” series to write “Star Wars”).

I would have read one of ten of the Bomba books reprinted in the 1950s, tie-ins to a series of of Bomba movies starring young Johnny Sheffield, who played the orphaned Caucasian Bomba in the jungles of Africa, following Sheffield’s screen debut as “Boy” in the popular Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller.

That confluence represents some degree of a wheel-within-a-wheel-within-a-wheel that invites some degree of contemplation I’ll avoid here.

The same publisher produced those perennial favorite Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery series. I’ve read my share of Hardy Boys books, and I’m still waiting for the day when, like Frank and Joe, I have my own speedboat and aeroplane and all that other cool stuff those kids had.

But I digress.

How that book came to occupy a spot in my upstairs room in the little house in Ohio is a mystery, but it was probably a Christmas gift, because everyone knew young blaknissan loved to read.

Eventually, that young reader figured out that a “cataract” was a more dramatic word — possibly lifted from one of the Burroughs books — for something he knew: a waterfall.

Here’s one of the iconic cataracts of the American west, Bridal Veil Fall in Yosemite National Park. Photographed in a dry midsummer, it’s barely perceptible as a thin stream of water falling more than 600 feet into the valley.

Yosemite Bridal Veil Falls Brad Nixon006 680

Another notable cataract is Multnomah Falls, one of an impressive string of waterfalls that plunge into the gorge of the mighty Columbia River on the northern edge of Oregon.

IMG_0037 Multnomah 680

Now I ask why the word “cataract” has entered my life, representing an occlusion over the lenses of my eyes. It came up recently after a visit to the optometrist.

What does an optical cataract have to do with a waterfall?

Cataracts in the eye and waterfalls are, as it turns out, two entirely different words, although spelled and pronounced precisely the same way, and with identical etymologies. A waterfall signifies one thing, an optical cataract is another. The difference is a matter of application: not unique in our hodge-podge English language.

We’ve used the term in English since at least 1430. In Middle English, it was cataracte, from Old French, via Latin cataracta, from Greek katarraktes: downrush, waterfall, portcullis, probably from katarassein, to dash down.

And there, in that Greek verb, is the origin of the optical cataract.
Not only does a waterfall “dash down” the face of a cliff, it obscures whatever’s behind it.
That’s what an optical cataract does: It “drops down” to obscure light from passing through the lens of the eye.
At some point, lost in time, a medical terminologist did the typical thing, looking to Greek or Latin terms for a word to describe a medical term to describe something falling over one’s vision and came up with “cataract.”
All I can say is that if you have a cataract in your eye, think of some noble cataract, like this one: Willamette Falls, in Oregon. Bigger, more dramatic, and some consolation.
What’s your favorite cataract? Please leave a comment.
Willamette Falls Brad Nixon 4826 680
© Brad Nixon 2020


  1. Hi Brad, love your comparisons since I can easily identify with the Hardy Boys,
    your hometown and cataract prevention surgery. Indeed, there comes a point when insurance will cover that cataract removal. My Dr. Sanitato I believe is the best in Cincinnati. I took my grandmother to him 30 years ago at UC for her cataract removal and lo and behold I have an appointment in his busy Kentucky office. He recalled my grandmother saying “Angels who guard you when you drive usually retire at 65” So she quit driving.
    I have been wearing thick glasses since I was 3 yrs old. Dr Sanitato asked why I never had surgical implants. I said they cost about $10,000 and thats what I paid for my trailer. He said they are less than half that but if I wished he would give me implants. After all I have had glasses for over 65 years and it is time to get rid of them. Maybe a pair of reading magnifiers if I need them or get tired. I was stunned. I believe my eyes watered up.
    Longer story shortened. One week later I was walking around with real close to 20-20. Enough to pass the drivers license renewal without glasses. All of this is Dr Sanitato who recently retired but sent me a letter saying if I needed him he would meet me at his office where his partners carry on his practice and surgery.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A great story. Good to hear from you, James.


  2. My favorite cataracts are the ones I don’t have any more. The story’s here.

    It occurs to me that there’s another similarity between waterfalls and visual cataracts. Both create ‘rainbows’ when mixed with light.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Enlightening. Thanks. I knew only the optical reference.

    BTW, how are you doing on that treatise comparing Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? The natives are restless.


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