A Word from Robbin

Robbin Orbison



a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger

a time when a difficult or important decision must be made

A crisis is an extreme situation. When major financial institutions started collapsing one after another during a single week in 2008, that was a crisis. When Three Mile Island started melting down in 1979, that was a crisis. The sudden hospitalization of a family member is a crisis. These are all examples of true crises, situations where you drop everything else to focus on them because the consequences of not acting are devastating.

It seems to me that in recent years, the urgency in the word “crisis” has been eroded to our detriment. We talk about things like climate change and gun violence as crises, but we don’t see everyone dropping everything to deal with them. Yes, there are plenty of people working hard on these problems, but under the definition of crisis we should all be immediately diverting all possible resources to solutions. Not only is there no such urgent diverting of resources, many people are either unaware or skeptical of the very existence of these crises. Some even embrace aspects of them.

So does that mean they are not really crises, that they have been mislabeled? Or does it mean that the word “crisis” is inadequate, and if so what is the correct word?

We have taken the edge off of our language by the overuse of hyperbole. Constantly calling mundane things “awesome” or “epic” has left those words inadequate to describe things that are really awesome or epic, forcing us to keep upping the hyperbole. As a result, we run out of words, so we invent new ones. Like “ginormous” or “humungous.”

But back to our word “crisis.” As a society we are facing numerous situations that are not only crises but in fact existential ones, and ignoring them is unsustainable, another word whose meaning has been eroded. To paraphrase one of my favorite writers, Michael Pollan, we use the word “unsustainable” so generally that we forget what it very specifically means, which is that sooner or later the system in question will collapse.

Confucius wrote of the doctrine of the Rectification of Names as an imperative, saying that if language is incorrect then what is said does not concord with what was meant and what is to be done cannot be effected. In other words, we can’t act appropriately on a crisis if the word has been altered to mean basically “problem” and not “emergency.”

I apologize if the tone of this Word is not as fun and bouncy as usual, but I think that in the wake of recent events that we feel so little control over, we can at least start attempting to rectify the names. Why not start with the name our language has for immediate existential threats: crisis. If something is a crisis, we need to wake up and treat it like one. Immediately.