No “Existential Crisis,” Please

The phrase “existential crisis” is a sesquipedalian pleonasm we have forced upon ourselves by our indiscriminate and hyperbolic use of the word “crisis.”  Crisis was at first the name physicians gave to the stage of a grave illness in which it was decided whether the patient would live or die.  It’s first known use was by Hippocrates, the Greek physician (and geographer), who wrote a treatise called The Crises around 400 B.C..  In this treatise, Hippocrates wrote:

“The crises of fevers take place on the same days on which the sick recover, or die.”

The root word is the Greek verb krinein, from which we also have our words critic and critical, for krinein means to separate, decide or judge.  When physicians describe a patient’s condition as “critical,” they mean the patient is in “crisis” and may either live or die.  When they say a patient’s condition as “no longer critical,” they mean the “crisis” has passed and the patient is sure to live.

It is perfectly proper to say that a nation is in crisis when the continued existence of the nation is in doubt.  It is likewise perfectly proper to say that a business is in crisis when it teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.  I see nothing wrong in saying that a marriage or relationship is in crisis when it is, as we say, “hanging in the balance” (which means undergoing judgement, or krinein).

But it is gross hyperbole to cry “crisis” when we misplace our car keys or foaming beer overtops our glass.

If you are not “looking down the barrel of a gun,” you are in a predicament, not a crisis.  If you prefer to say shemozzle, I say help yourself.  But please don’t say crisis.  It is because we didn’t save that word for the real thing that we are now obliged to mouth the sesquipedalian pleonasm “existential crisis.”

And even that lexical leviathan is now used to hype mere difficulties, ordeals and challenges.

The ongoing Covid epidemic is not, for instance, an “existential crisis for the United States.”  It is an existential crisis for many unfortunate individuals, as well as for many unfortunate businesses, but it is gross hyperbole (i.e. hype) to say that the nation is hanging in the balance, teetering on the brink, or looking down the barrel of a gun.

5 thoughts on “No “Existential Crisis,” Please

  1. Pingback: No “Existential Crisis,” Please | Reaction Times

  2. As I was gardening yesterday (always a good occasion for reactionary musings), I thought about the cheapening of the word hero. I suppose that it was once reserved for demigods. Then, great knights who fought and often died valiantly were heroes. Eventually, soldiers who braved battle were heroes — not simply the few whose mighty deeds changed the course of a war and of history — but everyone who showed courage in the face of death. Heroism trickled down to civilian life, too, where policemen and firefighters became peacetime heroes. They certainly risk their lives for the greater good. Now, anyone who contributes in any positive way to the common good is a hero — teachers, journalists, civil servants, grocery cashiers, medical staff . . . everyday heroes, every one of them. I understand the sentiment, but it still disgusts me. Democratic culture destroys everything in its failure to respect distinctions — in its inability to measure on a scale. Everyone gets an A, every child can be anything he wants to be, everyone is talented in his own special way. False — all false! The bovine conceit of the resentful herd! It’s no wonder old Freddy was so repulsed by all the bad smells!!!

    • C.S. Lewis talks about this in Studies in Words, and then again in Mere Christianity. He has a name for it that I can’t recall, and although I can see the spines of these books from where I sit, I’m too lazy to refresh my memory. He gives the example of “gentleman,” a word that once meant a landowner with a coat of arms, became a word that meant any man not actually in prison, and may now be applied to pug uglies as well as princes. As you say, the impulse may be kindness, but the result is really an appearance of kindness. When we give a blockhead an A, we do an injustice to the genuine A students. If I am a “hero” for making some extra effort to keep my classes running during the corona virus, we do an injustice to those who routinely risk their lives in a good cause.

  3. I would claim that this “pandemic” has exposed an American identity crisis like never before. It appears that Heritage America has both anti-Americans and “paper americans” working at both the top and the bottom to annihilate the American essence which cannot coincide harmoniously with an absolute submission to the State.

    • There was a day when the spirit of Rome was departed, and the descendants of the Romans were descendants in a purely zoological sense. The American spirit may not have departed, but it’s half way out the door.

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