Dot Wordsworth

Existential threat: the birth of a cliché

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

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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.