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.