And then I wrote...

by Dick Schilling, Editor Emeritus

... that I think I am suffering from S.A.D. No, not serious attention deficit, but rather seasonal affective disorder.
The older I get, the longer winters seem to last.
As proof of global warming (!) a number of Iowa cities this morning (February 23) set new all-time records for low temperatures for the date. And the forecast? This weekend, as March began, they were holding out the possibility of a major snow storm. Which should not surprise long-time Iowa residents. Don’t we often have a blizzard during high school basketball tournament time? Either girls or boys. Or both?
Another sign. A southern American city had to cancel the Disney show Frozen because of freezing weather.
It seems as if the national news “readers” all fall in love with the same word at the same time from time to time.
The classic was the time national media broadcasters all used the word “gravitas” a total of three dozen times the same weekend. As if that was a word in common use among them and their listeners. Or if we were all blessed with the vocabulary of the late William F. Buckley, erudite author of God and Man at Yale.
Lately, one of the most repeated words they have used is “existential.” I figure I have at least an average vocabulary, and I have encountered the word primarily in reference to a philosophical movement, existentialism. I supposed the base word is “exist” or to have being.
But the way it is being used reminds me of something we were taught in French class at university: that French is the perfect language of diplomacy because the same word or phrase can have an exact meaning or no meaning whatsoever.
President Obama (or one of his speech writers) used it to say that Islam (the religion) does not pose an existential threat to the United States.
I didn’t know what he meant by that, so I looked up the word in my comprehensive volume called Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, which is based on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Surely an authoritative source.
Reading the dictionary definitions proved no help. As with French, it seems it can mean anything or nothing. One example, and maybe the one the president wanted, is “grounded in the existence or the experience of existence.” Using the word you have used to define that word hardly seems worthy of a great dictionary!
Best I can figure is he meant to say that since Muslims as a religious group have not been a threat to us in the past, there is no reason to think they will be in the future.
But another definition assumes an existentialist as an individual is radically free and responsible, and I tend to wonder “responsible” to whom, and dislike that “radical” word.
Use of ordinary English might suit the purpose better!