The Vocabularist: Where did the word 'crisis' come from?

Abdication crisis Image copyright World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Barely a week passes without something being referred to as a crisis. But what makes a crisis a crisis, asks Trevor Timpson.

The Greek word krino meant separate, judge or decide, and from it came the nouns krites "judge" - from which we get critic, and kriterion, a test to judge by.

The related word "krisis" signified the preference of one alternative over another. The Day of Judgement is hemera kriseos, in the Greek New Testament - truly a crisis for those at risk of damnation.

Normally a crisis is a parting of the ways - a point of uncertainty before events move on. Some end in wars, like the Falklands crisis of 1982 - others end when war is averted, like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

For many years in English the word was most commonly applied to the climax of a disease - the point after which the patient recovers, or does not.

This gives us some of its most beautiful uses in literature, as in Oliver Twist: "It had been bright day, for hours, when Oliver opened his eyes; he felt cheerful and happy. The crisis of the disease was safely past. He belonged to the world again."

Image copyright Other
Image caption Richard Steele's 1714 pamphlet The Crisis got him expelled from the Commons

In other contexts too, the analogy of disease and uncertain recovery was often implied.

In 1627 as the Commons debated the rights of the king's subjects the MP Sir Benjamin Rudyard said: "This is the crisis of Parliaments, we shall know by this if Parliaments live or die."

War or peace, disease or recovery, fortune or ruin, abdication or not, a new government - in all these senses a crisis is an intermediate stage leading to something.

But sometimes it is just used to mean a very serious thing that has happened.

One paper wrote in 2014 that "the flooding crisis has reached Britain's most famous river". In fact it was not a "crisis" which had reached the towns along the Thames - it was the floodwater.

We often talk of people "hit by the financial crisis" when we mean hit by unemployment, bankruptcy or austerity.

One of the most celebrated uses of the word is the 1980s advertising slogan for Commercial Union by copywriter Susie Henry: "We won't make a drama out of a crisis".

But perhaps when you need your insurance company, the crisis is already past and you are on to the drama.


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