Existential: adj (1639) 1: of, relating to, or affirming existence; 2 a: grounded in existence or the experience of existence; empirical b: having been in time and space.
Combining the word “existential” with “threat,” every time a Democrat running for the party’s presidential nomination mentions how many trillions — it’s always trillions — of taxpayer dollars they are going to devote to ending the manufactured global warming hoax, they utter this combined phrase — existential threat.
What does it mean?
In “How to weaponize an existential threat” in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, author Joseph Epstein, cited “empty words,” saying his favorite was “existential threat.”
Noting that “existentialism,” the noun, was part of the “modish philosophical school primarily about ‘being’” that began in France around 1941, he named Jean-Paul Sartre 1905-80), a philosopher, dramatist and novelist, founder of the philosophy of existentialism, in which man must, says the dictionary, “assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.”
So, says Mr. Epstein, as Mr. Sartre had it, “existence precedes essence” leading to the notion of “not-being or ‘nothingness,’” which is why as a “philosophy existentialism went out of businesses. But the word ‘existential’ continues to carry a heavy load of non-meaning.”
Now other words, “vogue words,” coined by H.W. Fowler, to name some, carrying a heavy load of non-meaning are “weaponize, incentivicize, fraught and existential threat.”
Calling Mr. Fowler (1858-1933) “that god in the pantheon of language guardians,” he quoted Mr. Fowler — English schoolmaster, lexicographer and philologist, who studied literature and linguistics (human speech), and was co-author with his late brother of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), detailing grammar, syntax, style, pronunciation and punctuation, declaring:
“Every now and then, a word emerges from obscurity, or even from nothingness or a merely potential and not actual existence into sudden popularity. It is often, but not necessarily, one that by no means explains itself to the average man, who has to find out its meaning at best he can. His wrestlings with it have usually some effect upon it; it does not mean quite what it ought to, but to make up for that it means some things that it ought not to, by the time he has done with it.”
Emphasizing that this was his description of vogue words, he said Mr. Fowler’s judgment is:
“Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality.”
Mr. Sartre probably would have liked what English poet James Fenton said in “God, A Poem’:
I didn’t exist at Creation
I didn’t exist at the Flood,
And I won’t be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud —
‘Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is
In soteriological terms
I’m a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.’
Simply put, according to modern definitions, existential threat is a threat to existence, largely overstated. But then so is political jargon.