Pop Culture dictionary

existential threat

[ eg-zi-sten-shuhl thret ]

What does existential threat mean?

An existential threat is a threat to something’s very existence—when the continued being of something is at stake or in danger. It is used to describe threats to actual living things as well to nonliving thing things, such as a country or an ideology.

Related words

existential crisis, climate crisis, Pyrocene

Where does existential threat come from?

Something is generally considered an existential threat when it is massive in scale, such as climate change or nuclear warfare. An existential threat can be a threat to something that isn’t actually alive, such as the future of a business or technology.

The phrase existential threat is also occasionally used in the philosophical sense of the word existential, that is, when something forces you to ask questions about your life choices even though you may not be in any danger.

The particular phrase existential threat begins to spread around the 1960–80s, perhaps due to the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Existential threat really takes off in the 1990s and early 2000s. Discussion of the attacks of 9/11, for instance, framed terrorism as an existential threat to the West.

In 2019, the phrase existential threat became increasingly common in consideration of the climate crisis, often discussed as an existential threat to human civilization and the environment as we know them. Existential threat was also prominent in politics that year, with former Vice President and presidential candidate Joe Biden calling President Donald Trump an existential threat to American values.

The prevalence of treating various challenges in the terms of existential threat in the discourse in 2019 prompted us, in part, to choose existential as our Word of the Year.

WATCH: What Does "Existential" Mean To You In 2019?

Examples of existential threat

Brave kittens this morning defended the household against the existential threat posed by my backpack.
@pzr, August 2015
One after another, 10 candidates—the same ones who will participate in the next debate on Thursday—said addressing climate change would be one of their top priorities in office. Viewers who based their drinking game on the phrase “existential threat” might not have survived. 
Matt Stevens and Maggie Astor, New York Times, September 2019

Who uses existential threat?

The phrase existential threat gets used when the continued existence of something is perceived to be at stake due to some force or action.

Existential threat is also used in politics to suggest that some policy, program, or person endangers something else.

Many other things in society are described as under existential threat, from business to sports. An economic recession, for instance, could be said to be an existential threat to small business.

More generally, existential threat can be used when you are concerned something is under attack by large forces and feel urgent action needs to be taken about them.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of existential threat like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of existential threat that will help our users expand their word mastery.