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Angela Merkel bullies bankers, launches media fad word

Angela Merkel

Merkel: The Existential Chancellor

Well, it won’t be the first time in history that someone’s said this, but really, it’s all the German Chancellor’s fault.

On May 19, as the Greek euro crashed and burned, the Times reported Chancellor Angela Merkel “after introducing the short-selling ban and a new tax on banks … said: ‘This challenge is existential and we have to rise to it. The euro is in danger’.”

Existential? Existential??

Since she was speaking in the German Bundesrat, I guess she said this in German (“Existenz”?) and that “existential” is the correct English translation, because in its English report of the same speech, Deutsche Welle has her saying that “the eurozone is facing an ‘existential test, which it must pass’.”

Now I always thought “existential” was one of those highfalutin words best left to philosophy; specifically, philosophy about the nature of being – hence Sartre and existentialism. A quick look in the dictionary confirms this view:

existential |ˈɛgzɪˌstɛnʃ(ə)l|adjective of or relating to existence.• Philosophy concerned with existence, esp. human existence as viewed in the theories of existentialism.• Logic (of a proposition) affirming or implying the existence of a thing.

To say that a crisis facing a currency, no matter how big the crisis nor how widespread the currency, is “existential” strikes me as over-egging the pudding somewhat, like calling a fire a “raging conflagration”, as journalists in more intemperate, even flatulent, times were apt to do. Especially when there’s a perfectly apt four-letter word to describe what Merkel was saying: the crisis is real.

But in these equally flatulent post-modern times, why use a simple word of late Middle English origin when you can inflate it with Derridaist obscurantism into something which sounds twice as good but sucks the real – sorry, existential –meaning out of it?

And what do you know? Soon others jump on board and you can’t move without tripping over something existential.

Here’s former BP media director George Trefgarne in the Telegraph on the Mexican Gulf oil spill crisis:

“I suspect nobody feels more keenly than my former colleagues at BP the scale, complexity and existential nature of this catastrophe.”

If anything, this use of “existential” is even more obscure than Merkel’s: exactly what do you mean, Mr Trefgarne, by the “existential nature” of the oil spill? Whether we believe it exists or not? Whether the spill itself believes it exists or not? I would have thought, after the massive media coverage, it’s a bit late for this sort of post-modern philosophical thumb-sucking and hand-wringing.

Or maybe, just maybe, you wanted a third wooly adjective to finish off your article with a roundly Cicerean triptych, no matter how nonsensical, and (whisper it) you don’t really know what “existential” means? If you’re going to write like that, might I suggest you just use one of the online jargon generators here. (The Twitter Status one you may find particularly handy.)

In the meantime, the rest of us can expect more existential gab-babble from our nearest media outlet soon.

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