Crisis: Etymological Considerations

  • Title: Contemplations, Crisis: Etymological Considerations.
  • Author: Arvindus.
  • Publisher: Arvindus.
  • Copyright: Arvindus, 2012, all rights reserved.
  • Index: 201203251.
  • Edition: html, first edition.


In this contemplation shall the concept of 'crisis' be considered from an etymological perspective. It's roots are intended to be bared as far as possible, through which more original meanings shall be able to be thematized. It is hoped that this will contribute to actions in crises being conducted with more clarity, understanding and insight.


The English word 'crisis' is in contemporary days especially used to refer to "times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense" (and that in particular "in politics or commerce").1 More originally 'crisis' refers to "a vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything", to "a turning-point" or to "a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent".2 These more original meanings have been brought in from the word's etymological roots, namely from the Greek 'krísis'.3 This latter word may generally refer to a separating, distinguishing, decision, judgement, or to an interpretation (of dream or portent).4 'Krísis' itself is thought to be derived from the Greek verb 'krínein', meaning 'to decide',5 with which we have found the most elementary meaning of 'crisis'.

In a crisis do an interpretation, distinguishing, separation, judgement, decision, insecurity and suspense take place. Let us have a closer look at these concepts as they occur in crises. Basically these concepts can be divided into two categories, namely those of deliberation and indeliberation. Interpretation, distinguishing, separation, judgement and decision can here be considered as being performed deliberate, where the insecurity and suspense happen indeliberately.

Deliberate Actions

The aforementioned deliberate concepts concern performed actions. And the question rises on what givens these actions are performed. An interpretation is always an interpretation of something. A distinguishing is always a distinguishing between some things. A separation is always a separation of some things. A judgement is always a judgement of something. And a decision is always a decision about something. So what are these somethings? With a crisis considered to be a "decisive stage in the progress of anything"6 these somethings can be assumed to be the regarded progress. In a crisis is a progress interpreted, distinguished, separated, judged and decided upon.


Now the English 'progress' comes from the Latin 'prōgressiō' or 'prōgressus',7 both denoting a movement forward.8 More literally is a progression a stepping forward. For with 'prōgressiō' being consistent of the suffix 'pro' (meaning 'forward')9 and the word 'gressiō' (meaning 'stepping')10 does this Latin root of 'progression' refer to such a stepping forward.11 In a crisis then are steps forward interpreted, distinguished, separated, judged and decided upon.

That steps forward are being interpreted, distinguished, separated, judged and decided upon is definitely not always the case. On the contrary; normally no deliberate actions are taken when stepping forward. Normally it is no crisis to step forward. It happens by itself. It is against the background of this normal situation that a crisis can be understood.

Progress and Crisis

Everyone is progressing and stepping forward. Everyone is following a certain path and walking a specific way. Walking, this particular way isn't itself in sight. It goes where it goes, one walks where one walks, and there is no need to pay attention to the path. This situation changes however when the path becomes uneven, narrow or steep. At first one might stumble only occasionally over a few rocks and the like, after which the careless attitude may quickly be regained again and the path may be walked again in exactly the same way. However when the stumbles and falls become more frequent the path will draw to itself the attention of the walker. The path may become so uneven, so narrow or so steep and the stumbles and falls may become so frequent that the walker comes to a halt. And this is basically where the crisis has arrived. And it has arrived with an interpretation. What is interpreted then is the path that is being followed. The manifold falls have made the walker or progressor to interpret the path as uneven, narrow or steep, and all in all as not evident to follow further. Before, it was evident without second thought to follow the followed path and now doubt about this has crept in. Formerly the followed path was the one without a doubt, and now an orientation on other possible paths to follow has made its entry. In this stage a distinguishing between different possible paths of progression steps in. The distinguished paths are then deliberately set apart of each other. They are separated so each of them can be looked and judged upon by their own characteristics. 'Which paths go in the right direction and which paths are passable?' 'Which ways lead to the goal and which ways are practicable?' Thus each of the beholded paths are judged. The pro's and con's are put on the scale and the paths are weighed against each other.12 Eventually, at the end of the process of weighing and judging, shall one path stand out as the best one to follow. This standing out goes along with the decision of following that particular path. The followed path has been interpreted, other paths were distinguished and separated, these were judged and a decision on following one of the distinguished paths has been made. Now the progression that had come to a halt can continue. The crisis is over and the walker can continue his (new or old) way.

Indeliberate Happenings

In a crisis, so we found, do an interpretation, distinguishing, separation, judgement, decision, insecurity and suspense take place. Of these were interpretation, distinguishing, separation, judgement and decision considered as being performed deliberate, and as such they were pointed out in a crisis against the background of a general progression. Insecurity and suspense were on the other hand thought to happen indeliberately.


So let us see how these two appear when a path is walked, starting with insecurity. The English word 'insecurity' knows two connotations. As "the condition of not being sure" it refers to a psychic state, and as "the state or quality of being unsafe" it refers to a contextual state.13 In the present contemplation both connotations are valid. The insecurity that steps in with a crisis is both a contextual and a psychical state. And what these two have in common is that they both regard indeliberate happenings. This assertion might fairly evoke some objections, however in general it can be said that insecurity is an indeliberate happening and not a deliberate action.

Now the concept of insecurity is etymologically the negation of security. However when the English 'security' is being traced back to the Latin 'sēcūrus'14 we see that 'security' should be considered as a negation too. For 'sēcūrus' is compounded of the negating Latin prefix 'sē' and of 'cūra'.15 Now this Latin word 'cūra' carries several meanings such as 'anxiety', 'attention' and 'care'.16 To take 'care' here as the primal meaning is befitting since the English 'care' shares the same Indo-European root ('gar') with the Latin 'cūra'.17 Security then is a negation of care and insecurity is a double negation of the latter.

'Insecurity' is a double negation of 'care' and this means logically that both refer to the same. It is basically then a care that that steps in when a crisis occurs. Walking a path in a pre-crisis period was in the previous paragraph thematized as being characterized by carelessness. One walks the path without paying attention to the path. One is secure, both contextual and psychical, and one seems to have no need to take care of steps that are taken. This situation however changes during a crisis. The manifold stumbles and falls have forewarned the pathwalker to be careful, culminating to a crisis where all attention and care is asked for the choice that needs to be made. If one doesn't choose with care and attention a diverting, steep and rocky path may be chosen, or even one leading away from the goal. Thus the walker must choose with care. And this care goes etymologically but also naturally along with insecurity. The contextual unsafety of possible avalanches of rolling rocks on the steep path and the psychic feeling of unsafety heed one to take care.


In a crisis does also a suspense take place. This English word 'suspense' comes from the Latin 'suspensus'18 which in turn is derived from the Latin 'suspendō'19. This latter is compounded of 'sub' and 'pendō'.20 Now with 'sub' denoting a lower position21 and with 'pendō' referring to a weighing (on scales that are brought to an equilibrium)22 did 'suspendō' reflect both meanings in its use. Basically is 'suspendō' thought to mean 'hang up'.23 Now it needs little explanation to see that something which is hung up, is hung up under a carrier to which the regarded hanging rope or line is attached. This is what 'sub' in 'suspendō' makes clear. 'Suspendō' refers not just to a weighing that takes place as expressed by 'pendō'; it refers to a weighing that is hung up on something. 'Suspendō' (and from there also 'suspense') refers to a weighing that is hung up on something which is provisional for that weighing. The suspense in a crisis comes in with the sense that the deliberate actions of weighing (which regard the actions of interpreting, distinguishing, separating, judging and deciding) are hung up on a provisional indeliberate happening. The suspense in a crisis takes place with the notion that the context of an impassable path forces one to temporarily suspend the progress and contemplate about which path to choose for continuation.23


In this contemplation we set out to consider the concept of 'crisis' from an etymological perspective. By baring its roots as far as possible it would become possible to thematize more original meanings, hoping that this then would contribute to actions in crisis being conducted with more clarity, understanding and insight.

Basically we found that in a crisis an interpretation, a distinguishing, a separation, a judgement, a decision, an insecurity and a suspense take place. Of these was the decision regarded as etymologically the most elementary. The concepts of 'interpretation', 'distinguishing', 'separation', 'judgement' and 'decision' were subsequently placed under the category of 'deliberate actions' and 'insecurity' and 'suspense' under that of 'indeliberate happenings'. The deliberate actions were found to be conducted on a progress of which a crisis was considered to be a stage. With 'progress' referring to a stepping forward was a crisis metaphorically being thematized as a stage in the walking of a path. Normally an even path is walked carelessly, however when the path becomes uneven, steep or narrow attention is drawn. The followed path is interpreted, different possible paths are distinguished, separated and judged, and a decision about which path to take is being made. Such a crisis then goes along with the indeliberate happening of psychic and contextual insecurities. With insecurity being a double negation of care it was brought to the fore that a crisis goes along with a care. The other indeliberate happening in a crisis was a suspense. This suspense, so the etymology of 'suspense' told us, takes place with the notion that the context of an impassable path forces one to temporarily suspend the progress and contemplate about which path to choose for continuation.

May the above considerations contribute to actions in crises being conducted with more clarity, understanding and insight.

  • 'Contemplations, Reduction (and Pseudo-Reduction)', Index: 201004221.
  • John Ayto, Word Origins, The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z, A & C Black, London, 2005.
  • Henry George Liddell / Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, London, 1968.