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Jane Mairs, Director of English language Learning Publishing
The meaning of "existential"
Thursday August 9th 2012
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The meaning of "existential"
Answer

Question


Please explain the usage of the word existential. I hear it frequently on the news and on talk shows. Dictionaries use "existence" in their definitions of this word. This does not help my usage. Help!   

- Phil from the United States


Answer


The adjective existential is often defined as, “of, or relating to, existence.” However, as you point out, that doesn’t really explain the meaning of existential in most contexts.

Let’s try another approach, looking at how the word is most often used. Using a language corpus, I found that existential most often occurs in one of these phrases: 

  1. existential threat
  2. existential questions
  3. existential crisis


The first phrase, existential threat, is used in texts or discussions about politics, usually politics in the Middle East. In this context, existential is being used literally. An existential threat is a threat to a people’s existence or survival.

The second phrase, existential questions, references Existentialism, a 20th century philosophy concerned with questions about how and whether life has meaning, and why we exist. (For more information, look up Existentialism or the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.)

The third phrase, existential crisis, is also a reference to Existentialism, but it is often used in a humorous or sarcastic way, to suggest that the person or people being described spend too much thinking about themselves and the meaning of their lives.

In sum, existential can be a reference to survival, or to the meaning of our lives, or used to poke fun at others who might take themselves a bit too seriously.

This was an interesting question, and I hope this answer helps a bit.


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