What Does 'Existential' Mean?

“Existential” can seem like a big, incomprehensible word until you realize it’s related to the word "exist."

Mignon Fogarty
A picture of the universe

I’ve been seeing the word “existential” in the news recently because of a recent Trump administration report projecting global temperatures will rise 4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, and the recent climate change report from the United Nations scientific panel that says we have about 10 years to get climate change under control or life on earth—from humans to coral—will suffer.

An Existential Threat

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“Existential” can seem like a big, incomprehensible word until you realize it’s related to the word “exist.” In fact, it comes from a Latin word that means “to exist,” and when “existential” is used in its most literal sense, it relates to being. For example, an “existential threat to humanity” is something that threatens humanity’s continued existence or being. For example, the world’s stockpile of nuclear bombs could also be considered an existential threat to humanity because there are enough of them to wipe us out.


“Existential” also has a meaning tied to existentialism—a branch of philosophy that deals with existence. Existentialism was begun by Kierkegaard and expanded by philosophers including Sartre and Camus.

'Existential' comes from a Latin word that means 'to exist.'

The field deals with questions about the meaninglessness of human life and a person’s individual freedom and responsibility to make his or her life meaningful in some way. 

An Existential Crisis

For example, an existential crisis could be characterized by thoughts such as “I’m just one out of more than 7 billion people on earth. Why does my individual life have meaning?”

Interestingly, one study found that about 35 percent of Germans are existentially indifferent in that when asked, they said they didn’t feel like their lives had meaning, but they also didn’t care. From what I can gather, they just didn’t think about it very much. So another coping mechanism may be to stay busy with family, friends, and volunteer work—too busy to ponder such big thoughts so they can’t bother you. 

I haven’t read any Kierkegaard, so I can’t tell you whether doing so would make you feel better or worse.

Examples of ‘Existential’

One of my favorite quotations that uses the word “existential” is from “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” by Douglas Adams. Here's that and a few others:

Not unnaturally, many elevators imbued with intelligence and precognition became terribly frustrated with the mindless business of going up and down, up and down, experimented briefly with the notion of going sideways, as a sort of existential protest, demanded participation in the decision-making process and finally took to squatting in basements sulking. — “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” by Douglas Adams

I go into a void every time I'm deactivated. Emptiness, complete and utter oblivion. I'll admit, it was unsettling at first—the existential horror of it all... — Robert Picardo playing The Doctor in "Star Trek: Voyager"

What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaninglessness in rational terms. — Viktor Emil Frankl (Man's Search for Meaning)

However, by Sunday noon—not coincidentally, the unhappiest hour in America—you may have run through your options and wind up slumped on a couch, suffering from the Sabbath existential crisis. It's at just such unfocused, unproductive times, says Csikszentmihalyi, that "people start ruminating and feeling that their lives are wasted and so forth. — Winifred Gallagher

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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