Ten to twenty years ago the word Existential hardly ever appeared in print. Nowadays it appears everywhere. Politicians, Scientists, Newscasters and everybody in between is using it. The following is an edit because my question was closed. Of the following answers and comments not one person answered the original question 'Why'. So I ask again why do so many people today insist on using the word 'existential' instead of the word 'real'. Do they assume it makes their statements more easily understood. Is it an attempt to elevate their arguments. It takes a lot more effort to write 'existential' than it does to write 'real' so why do it?


1 Answer 1


Based on the stats posted by Lio, and similar ones with the French equivalent "existentiel" (showing a peak in 1990), I will propose the hypothesis that what changed the fortunes of the word "existential" is the fall of the Berlin wall (1989) and more generally the collapse of the eastern block.

The reasoning would be that the word is strongly associated with JP Sartre, who was a communist till his death in 1980. Before 1989, using such a word in the West was a bit risqué, as it singled you out not just as "dangerously French" but also as potentially communist. Such was not anymore the case after the fall of communism. So one could use the word without raising eye brows in the 90's, a time during which the US became hegemonious and started to think in terms of "existential risks" to their hegemony.

My 2 cents anyway.

  • That is very interesting and informative but I am not sure that the many of the people writing essays, reports or news articles today would be sufficiently aware of the history of the word so as to affect its usage. When I first became aware of the word back in the 1990's it always seemed to refer to a crisis. Later after 2000 I noticed it started to refer to 'risk' and later it often referred to a problem. It now just seems to have replaced the word 'real' in a lot of places. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 14:32
  • 1
    @MichaelMcgarry People don't need to be aware of a trend in order to follow it, though.
    – Olivier5
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 14:54
  • @Olivier5 The statistics posted by Lio does not show any remarkable behaviour for the year 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Moreover the statistics shows a similar increase for the period 1996-2017, where the statististics ends, like for the period 1940-1968. Hence your interpretation is not supported by the statistics. - Your speculation seems totally unsubstantiated.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 15:20
  • It is normal to see a delay between cause and effect, so the fact that the new trend started in 1990 is not as damaging as you seem to think.
    – Olivier5
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 18:13

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .