Word of the Month: Existential

David Zapatka

From existential threats to existential choices, the word, existential, was used in the news and in conversations around the country frequently this past year.

“I’m trash!” was the insistent cry of Forky, the googly-eyed spork whose struggle to be a toy was at the heart of the summer blockbuster Toy Story 4. Forky’s plight was entertaining, yes, but it also resonated with a deeper sentiment—and word—that defined so much of 2019. Forky? The dictionary? 2019?

Well, the thing about Forky is, his dilemma actually speaks to a broader theme of threat and crisis reflected not only in culture and news, but also in dictionary work throughout the year. High-stakes events around the world involving climate change, gun violence, and democratic institutions were some of the top news stories. And words about these events, from polar vortex to stochastic terrorism to exonerate were top searches and trends on Dictionary.com.

Notable among searches was existential, which was chosen as the Word of the Year for 2019 by Dictionary.com. It captures a sense of grappling with the survival—literally and figuratively—of our planet, our loved ones, and our ways of life.

But existential also inspires us to ask big questions about who we are and what our purpose is in the face of our various challenges. It reminds us that we can make choices about our lives in how we answer those questions. Ultimately, it is up to us through the choices we make and the attitudes we choose.

Existential: adjective ex·-is·-ten·-tial | ˌeg-(ˌ)zi-ˈsten(t)-shəl 1. of, relating to, or affirming existence 2a. grounded in existence or the experience of existence; empirical 2b. having being in time and space.

Origin and Etymology: late 17th century: from Latin existentialis, existentia. The root word is existing. If something is existing, it’s real. The verb exist, at the root of the adjective existing, comes from the Latin existere, “come into being,” from a combination of ex, “out,” and sistere, “take a stand.” The term “existentialism” (French: L’existentialisme) was coined by the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the mid-1940s. At first, when Marcel applied the term to Jean-Paul Sartre at a colloquium in 1945, Sartre rejected it.

Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom, and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe.

Examples of existential used in a sentence:

Lake Pepin…is facing an existential problem: in a few hundred years it may no longer exist.—Twin Cities Daily Planet

Bronstein might have gone on to look for those “non-evident concepts” instead of space and time, but first he had to deal with an existential problem in cosmology.—Scientific American

Please submit your experiences, any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to dzapatka@wbhsi.net.