Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Existential Threat

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Existential Threat

Article excerpt

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'. …

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