I don’t recall exactly when I first read in English about an existential threat, but I’m sure it was in the negative. There was a spate of commentary explaining that terrorism is a nuisance but not an existential threat to Israel. Before that, I’d heard only about existentialism. So an existential threat to Israel sounded like a streetful of French intellectuals campaigning to cut off our supply of brie. But obviously existential was supposed to be a translation of קיומי. Maybe it always was the proper English-language equivalent, but I considered it awkward.
Today if you try existential threat at Google, you get lots about threats to Israel but also about threats to the USA, to Pakistan, and to the planet as a whole. The book searcher at ngrams.googlelabs.com shows barely a ping for the phrase around 1900, but then an ever-steepening rise in usage from the 1950s to the present. When Hillary Clinton spoke of an existential threat against the Pakistani government in 2009, someone wrote to Yahoo UK, “Even allowing for the fact that Americans do, in general, take liberties with the English language, I find her choice of words disturbing. Does she mean that the people in question have embraced the philosophical school of thought known as Existentialism…?” But I think that if Hillary said it, it’s acceptable geopolitical jargon.
A political phrase that I’d call unacceptable, no matter who says it and how often, is the translation of לא בכל מחיר — heard often in connection with Gilad Shalit — as not at any price. It’s all over the Israeli media, and from there it jumps into The Guardian, The Telegraph, Reuters, etc. But not at any price doesn’t mean “not regardless of price.” It means “at no price at all,” just as not at any time means “at no time at all” or not at any bus station means “at no bus station at all.” The usage isn’t not English, it’s a Hebraism. On line, the Cambridge Dictionary says that not at any price is “used to say that you would never do something: ‘I wouldn’t invite her again at any price.’”
The לא בכל מחיר position is that on the one hand we won’t be buffaloed, but on the other hand there is what to talk about. And how’s that for English? There is what to talk about. It’s not a locution with conspicuous British roots; to have things to talk about or to have something to talk about would sound more natively English. But grammatically, to have what to talk about passes muster. On Google, Jewish hits predominate but on qatarliving.com, in a discussion of age differences among couples, someone called Qatari Sun says, “I thought we are talking about 12-15 years difference. Then there is what to talk about… but 2 years? who cares?” The expression could come not only from יש על מה לדבר but from íl y a de quoi parler or, I imagine, from any number of other languages, presumably including Arabic.
If you know about the equivalent Arabic, or if you have any comment on any of the three expressions covered here, feel free to use the space below. You don’t need to be an Elephant member. If there’s any other expression you’d like to see discussed here, please don’t use the comment space but instead drop me a line at email@example.com and you’ll be credited if the topic is used.