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Existentially speaking

"THIS IS AN existential conflict," Dick Cheney told Fox News on Jan. 14, describing the war on terror as a fight the West must win. The following week, in an interview with Newsweek, the vice president used the phrase again: "It's an existential conflict." And his daughter Liz spread the word in a Washington Post op-ed: "America faces an existential threat."

Existential isn't just a Cheney buzzword, though. Bill Frist, then Senate majority leader, called bioterrorism "the greatest existential threat we have in the world" in a 2005 commencement address. Tony Blair assured Britons in 2004 that "the global real and existential." Condoleezza Rice warned of the "existential threat" in 2002.

And what is this existential of which they speak? "They're using the word in a straightforward way to mean 'our existence is at stake,"' e-mailed Christopher Shea, my fellow Ideas writer, last week. "But is that what you think of when you hear existential?" No, it's not. Like him, I think of Sartre in a Left Bank cafe or Woody Allen on a psychiatrist's couch, pondering (or suffering) the struggle to create an authentic self in an indifferent and purposeless universe. But that can't be what the Bush people mean by existential, even if the president did read Camus on his summer vacation.

No, they're harking back to the existential coined centuries ago -- an adjective meaning merely "pertaining to existence" -- and putting it to use in what looks like shorthand for "a threat to our very existence."

This existential formulation doesn't show up in the Nexis news database till 1984. But once it's launched, there are "existential threats" all over the place: to Palestinians, Jordan, the Soviet empire, all humankind, and most of all to Israel.

These are generally just "threats to the existence of," as William Safire's gloss in a 2001 commentary, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, makes clear: "Suicide hijackers and bombers do not pose what is coolly called an existential threat to -- that is, a danger to the very existence of -- the United States....Terror-sponsoring states use these human missiles to implant that debilitating dread in individual American minds."

It's possible, of course, that the current deployers of existential believe the word can be made to imply more than those earlier uses -- and Safire's translation -- suggest. Maybe they're hoping that "existential conflict" sounds more profound and meaningful, given its philosophical associations, than "death struggle" or "fight for survival."

But will the American people buy it? I'm doubtful. Phrases like existential conflict and existential threat may sound grave and gloomy when our leaders wield them, but nothing can protect them, in this land of free speech, from casual or jokey or ironic use. "Being born is an existential threat, because it means you're gonna die," noted one blogger, in response to the doomsday rhetoric. "Did existential just become a fancy word for big?" demanded another.

Our version of "existential crisis" was long ago downscaled and domesticated. Hollywood makes "existential comedies" and "existential Westerns" (aren't they all?). Google coughs up references to "existential dance music," an "existential Stephen King nightmare," and an "existential opinion on why people don't have friends."

And in California, where a dry winter has left the famously fogbound San Joaquin Valley in the clear, the Stockton Record recently assured readers that the annual fog festival would go on nonetheless: "The absence of fog doesn't pose an existential threat."

. . .

DE MOONIMIS: As the story of the misconstrued Mooninites unfolded last week, several reports were published online with headlines like the one on Yahoo News: "2 men released from jail in hoax case."

"Hoax case"? Sure, Governor Deval Patrick had called the episode a hoax, but by the time the guys who had plastered the cartoon figures around town were in custody, it was clear that they hadn't meant to fool anyone. And deception is crucial to the definition of hoax -- a word "supposed to be a contracted form of hocus," according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the law, it turns out, sees it differently; the hoaxee gets a say in whether a wayward Mooninite is a "hoax device," defined as "any device that would cause a person reasonably to believe that such device is an infernal machine." (An "infernal machine" -- I know you're wondering -- is "any device for endangering life or doing unusual damage to property, or both, by fire or explosion.")

Legally, then, if "reasonable" people were scared, the electronic cartoons could be deemed "hoax devices." That legal sense, however, shouldn't be allowed to leak into everyday language, where a hoax implies intent to deceive, not accidental flimflammery.