Mind your language

Existential threat: the birth of a cliché

A word that didn’t arrive in English until 1941 is already bonded into nonsense

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

In the endless game of word association that governs vocabulary, the current favourite as a partner of existential is threat. They make an odd couple. Max Hastings managed to get them into the Daily Mail the other day, writing that ‘although Islamic fanatics can cause us pain and grief, they pose no existential threat as did Hitler’s Germany’. A letter to the Times said that the Charlie terrorists’ ‘wicked ideology is an existential threat to Islam itself’. In those examples, the threat is to our existence or to the existence of Islam. But in this phrase from an article by Irwin Stelzer in the Sunday Times, ‘sincere believers in the existential threat of global warming’, whose existence is threatened? Here existential threat has become equivalent to deadly threat.

The construction is strange because it means ‘threat to existence’, rather than ‘threat that exists’. Think of parallels: Islamist threat does not mean ‘threat to Islamists’. Intentional threat is not ‘threat to intention’.

Some people do still manage to use existential outside this cliché. The Pope in his interesting dressing-down for curial officials before Christmas, spoke of the sad person who seeks ‘to fill an existential emptiness in his heart by accumulating material goods’. The singer Ian Bostridge, discussing Schubert’s Winterreise, mentioned the ‘wanderer’s existential misery’.

As a more or less vague philosophical category, existential has been with us only since 1919, even in the German form Existentialismus, and it wasn’t until 1941 that it was heaved over the borders of the English language by dropping the -us. That was nearly 100 years after Kierkegaard had started publishing work on the idea, but he wrote in Danish and used the term Existents-Forhold.

Although the word existence was known in the 14th century, most people wrote about philosophy in Latin at that time and used the word existentia. The verb exist waited another couple of centuries to appear, not being known before Shakespeare used it in the mouth of King Lear, who swore to disown poor Cordelia ‘by all the operation of the orbs/ From whom we do exist and cease to be’. It’s the threat of ceasing to be that worries people now.

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  • Marie

    The Pope spoke in English at Christmas?

  • MathMan

    Well, let’s hear it for the Pope!

  • Global warming IS an existential threat.

    • Helen of Troy

      Only in your addled mind.

  • carlkirsch

    It seems to me that the phrase “existential threat” started to be used by media persons after 9/11 to emphasize that some external threat to our national security or existence exists or might exist.

    To me, the word “existential” is redundant, because something either is or is not a threat to one’s existence. It’s like saying this or that represents a “real threat”.
    Carl Kirsch
    Atlanta, GA

    • BlueCat57

      Silly you believing that words actually have fixed meaning. We live in a post-modern (whatever the heck that means), relativistic time. There is no combination of words that is truly an oxymoron. You’re so cute. You must be really, really old to think in black and white and not “50 shades of grey.” (Did you catch that hip reference to a current cultural meme?)

      Gosh, it’s fun to pretend to be young and stupid. No, Carl, you are absolutely right. Something is a threat or not. They are sticking existential in front of it so that people think it means that it may or may not be a threat instead of it being a threat to existence.

      You have to take people (who cause terrorism not religion or ideology, or so “say we all” says Obama) at their word. And ISIS, Iran and many other groups say “death to America” (and by extension to all free countries) and that is an unequivocal threat to me and you and all free people everywhere, right now. We need to respond to that threat by clearly identifying the source and dealing with it actively. (whatever actively means) You can deal with a threat by hiding, running or eliminating it with “extreme prejudice” as they used to say in the spy thrillers. You can’t try being nice, kind or considerate. That might work with rational people but rational people don’t cut off people’s heads on camera (unless you’re a liberal Hollywood type) or burn them alive.

      Unfortunately sometimes force needs to be met with force. And I mean force. In Desert Storm “The coalition flew over 100,000 sorties, dropping 88,500 tons of bombs, and widely destroying military and civilian infrastructure.” “During the initial 24 hours 2,775 sorties were flown,” That’s what force means. Not 4,817 targets (not sure how that compares to sorties) over 6 months.

      Keep demanding that “words have meaning” and that that meaning is fixed. Demand that speakers clearly define their terms (compare the definitions of interrogation and torture and you’ll see how they use the word torture improperly). Demand that they are consistent with their terms (IS, ISIS, ISIL, etc the ignorant would think the President is talking about many different groups and conclude that some are no longer a “threat”).

      Oh? Sorry for the rant. Now what was I doing when I found this article and your quote?

    • Daniel P. Hanover

      I heard the phrase “existential threat” in the 1960’s. It certainly just didn’t pop up suddenly after 9-11.

    • JohnC

      You must be an American, thinking that history began on 9/11.

      I am afraid that this misuse of the English language goes back further than 2001.

      I cringe whenever I hear “Existential Threat” or “One of the only”.

  • tbart

    I looked the term “existential threat’ up in the dictionary. Joe Biden is right. Kind of funny how often Joe Biden is right.