What Is a Crisis?

Bank_run_during_the_Showa_Financial_CrisisAccording to Google News, the following things are in “crisis”: Venezuela, modern Science, American cities, truth, intellectuals, and, of course, the southwestern boarder. But what exactly is a crisis?

To find the answers to these questions, I thought I’d see what the books along the BLRL’s shelves. Here’s what I found.

I was surprised to learn the word crisis is first and foremost, a medical term. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first sense of the word,

The point in the process of a disease when an important development or change takes place, which is decisive of recovery or death; the turning point of a disease for better or worse.

Similar definitions appear in the BLRL’s several medical dictionaries, such as the American Illustrated Medical Dictionary, which defines crisis as, “The turning point of a disease for good or evil.”

With the medical stuff out of the way, the OED goes on to define crisis in a more familiar fashion,

A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning point; a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce.

For me, that last sentence is of the utmost importance, as the word applied seems to hint at the notion of manufacturing crisis, a now regular component of our present difficult, insecure, and suspenseful times. In the medical sense, the moment of crisis seems to be more obvious, objective, and definite — “a turning point” (for better or worse). This implies that there’s an event, that something is happening or has happened to alter the outcome. The same cannot be said for political crises. If you don’t believe me, just look at the hub-bub over the boarder. One fellow keeps flapping about a “crisis,” that we’re experiencing something significant, and that we need a wall to keep it at bay. His opponents, on the other hand, contend that nothing is different, that no change has taken place, and thus the purported crisis is a fiction. It can’t be both.

Speaking of fiction, crisis is also a literary term. The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines the word as, “The point in a story or play at which the tension reaches a maximum and a resolution is imminent. There may, of course, be several crises, each preceding a climax.”


But wait, there’s more. If we can stay with the fiction angle for a bit, it’s worth pointing out that there’s something called a psycholeptic crisis, which the Psychiatric Dictionary defines as an

Eruption of irrational unconscious elements into consciousness … which is essentially the feeling of a catastrophe, namely the end of the world. Epileptics often have ideas of impending destruction.

Hmmm, I wonder if this has any bearing on our current political “crisis” along the border.

The Etymology of Crisis

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says “crisis once referred to the turning point of a disease. It is medical Latin, from Greek krisis ‘decision,’ from krinein ‘decide.’ The general sense ‘decisive point’ dates from the early 17th century.

Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, offers a slightly different explanation. Crisis, it says, is “the Latin translation of Greek krisis, a sifting, from krinein, to sift.” Origins, goes on to say that, “Medical critical goes back to Late Latin criticus, in grave condition, and Middle Latin criticare, to be extremely ill.”

Interestingly, Chamber’s Dictionary of Etymology offers yet another (slightly) different answer. It says crisis comes from “Latin crisis, from Greek krisis a separating, discrimination, decision, from krinein to separate, decide, judge.” It goes on to say, “The sense of decisive moment, is first recorded in English in 1627 as a figurative extension of the original medical meaning.”

I’m not sure what “medical Latin” is, or how it might differ from regular Latin, but the Latin word crisis is not found within the Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary (which I contend is far too big to fit in anyone’s pocket). Instead, it offers discrimen, meaning “separating line; division; distinction, difference, crisis, risk.” Neither critical nor criticare are there either. Criticus is, however, it is defined as a “literary critic.”

It seems my ability to research Latin words is in crisis.

Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

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