Culture Community 'Existential' Is the Word of the Year for 2019 By Melissa Breyer Editorial Director Hunter College F.I.T., State University of New York Cornell University Melissa Breyer is Treehugger’s editorial director. She is a sustainability expert and author whose work has been published by the New York Times and National Geographic, among others. our editorial process Melissa Breyer Updated December 02, 2019 Public Domain. "Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?" Painting by Paul Gauguin, 1897 Share Twitter Pinterest Email Culture History Travel Sustainable Fashion Art & Media Holidays Community Dictionary.com picks the perfect word for our dystopian future! Every year various dictionaries announce their word of the year – usually a word that was frequently used and that also enjoyed high search traffic. Usually, it’s a word that captures the zeitgeist of the time. This year, Dictionary.com does not disappoint in crowning “existential” as their Word of the Year for 2019. “Notable among searches was existential,” notes the lexicographers. “It captures a sense of grappling with the survival – literally and figuratively – of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life.” The word was prominent in discussions of topics that dominated the year: climate change, gun violence, and democracy itself. Good times! Upon hearing the word some of us may go straight to the philosophical movement, existentialism – which is included in the dictionary’s second meaning of the word. The editors define the adjective in two senses: “The first is ‘of or relating to existence.’ Entering English in the late 1600s, this existential is often used when the fact of someone or something’s being – its very existence – is at stake. An existential threat to a species, for example, puts its continued existence in real, concrete peril.” Dictionary.com/Screen capture “Our second sense of existential is ‘concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices.’ First recorded by the early 1900s, this existential is related to existentialism, a philosophy that affirms our individual agency in making meaningful, authentic choices about our lives.” And indeed, “existential” feels like an appropriate descriptor for 2019. The planet was savaged by fires – California, the Amazon, Australia – and awash in storms like Hurricane Dorian. And many writers incorporated the word in their coverage of the planet. Searches for existential spiked throughout the year, in context of the climate crisis and the threats posed to human life and the environment at large. As Amazon Watch wrote, “... it’s not only the Amazon, but our entire planet that is in crisis as the devastation of this life-giving biome poses a real, existential threat for all of humanity.” Or as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said in a speech to the US Congress, “I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is.” There were many more examples; all equally depressing. But existential can also be framed in a more inspiring light – even if it is hard to escape the feeling of impending dystopia. Maybe we all need a touch of existential crisis to start asking the big questions and to start getting ourselves back in alignment with what the planet needs. “The words we saw people looking up in 2019 signal a broader concern about safety, security, and survival, in ways both immediate and far-reaching,” said John Kelly, Senior Research Editor at Dictionary.com. “Sustained interest in existential, in our lookup data as well as in the news and culture, reflects this collective grappling. But for all the feeling of doom and gloom this year, the philosophical underpinnings of the word existential invite us to pause, shake off any pessimism or passivity, and ask: What choices do we make in the face of our challenges?” With that mind, I am looking forward to future words of the year; how long until we can make terms like “regeneration,” “abundance,” and “utopia” the words to celebrate?