- fatal, fatefulBoth words have to do with the workings of fate, and their complex histories, fully explored by the OED, have often intertwined. Fowler (1926) wrote a fond defence of the special meaning of fateful, ‘having far-reaching consequences’, which (unlike fatal) might be good or neutral as well as bad:
• In summing up 1934 we can see, in the light of what was to come, that it was a fateful year —J. F. Kennedy, 1940
• The fateful sequence of events had started with a malfunction in the main pumps supplying cooling water to the reactor's core —C. Aubrey, 1991.Fatal means ‘causing death’ (as in fatal accident), and can refer to inanimate things and situations as well as to those able to suffer actual death:
• Even when your trump suit is solid, it may still be fatal to touch it too early —Country Life, 1976
• The existence of these private but non-fee-paying schools will have a deeply depressing, if not fatal, effect on other schools in the area —M. Warnock, 1989.The closest synonyms to fatal in this meaning are catastrophic, disastrous, ruinous. The collocation fatal flaw, which originates as a term in literary criticism for the decisive weakness in character that leads to tragedy, is often used hyperbolically to add significance to the notion of a serious weakness or objection, making it often little more than a cliché:
• Until he faces up to his own fatal flaws, he has no hope of conquering them —Today, 1992
• The fatal flaw in the ban-smacking brigade's thinking is their inability to recognise the difference between a parental smack and violence —South Wales Evening Post, 2004.
Modern English usage. 2014.