Don't get me wrong—I appreciate that the English language is constantly changing and evolving. And I know that my job as an editor requires me to recognize the difference between these micro-evolutions on one hand and plain errors on the other. But the academic in me can't help but grumble when I see these three increasingly common English morphs pop up in a text.
Writers like to use the word "dilemma" as a catch-all phrase for any sort of difficult or unpleasant situation. "I want to visit my friends tonight, but I can't find a babysitter—what a dilemma!” Or, “I’m in a bit of a dilemma—I lied on my resume and now my employer thinks I can speak Cantonese!”
Strictly speaking, you have a dilemma on your hands only when you are faced with a choice between exactly two equally unpleasant options, and you must pick one of them: “If I eat breakfast, I’ll be late for work. If I don’t eat breakfast, I’ll be hungry all morning.” Now, there’s a dilemma!
It’s not uncommon to hear that certain things pose an “existential threat” or create an “existential crisis.” Obesity, for example, poses an “existential threat” to North America. Having to make a difficult decision leaves me in the throes of an “existential crisis.” The War on Terror, said Dick Cheney in 2007, is an “existential conflict.”
“Existential,” however, is not a catch-all phrase meaning “serious,” “emotional,” or “moral.” An existential threat (or conflict) is one that threatens one’s very survival or existence. Unless there is a chance that obesity will literally wipe North America off the map, it poses no existential threat to it.
Similarly, in an existential crisis, one is consumed by questions about the very foundation of life and existence: “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” Contemplating the vastness of the known universe may very well trigger an existential crisis; having to get up early on a Sunday, not so much.
3. “Which begs the question…”
Although this last morph drives me the craziest of them all, it is also the one that I am most likely to let slide when editing a manuscript. “To beg the question” has become synonymous with “to raise the question,” or “to make relevant the question.” For example, “Congratulations on your fifth wedding anniversary! Which begs the question—when are you going to give me grandchildren already?”
Begging the question, however, is also the technical term for committing the logical fallacy of circular reasoning. It started out as a mistranslation of the Latin petitio principii, which means, more or less, to “assume the initial point.” For example, if I told you that the reason broccoli is healthy is because it is good for you, I’d be begging the question. Something is good for you only if it is healthy, and it is healthy only if it is good for you. I haven’t really provided you with any substantial reason, then, for thinking that broccoli is healthy. Philosophers call such arguments “question-begging.”
But, of course, all this begs the question—who decides what words mean? It’s quite the dilemma, I admit, but for now, let’s put this existential question aside.