- Crisis originally referred to point in which an illness would get better or worse
- It comes from the Greek, krisis (decision, sifting)
- The Proto-Indo-European root is *krei-/*ker- (separate, sift, sieve); cognates range from ascertain to excrement to crime
- Turmoil likely comes from the French tremouille, evoking the commotion of a “mill hopper”
- This tremouille might be from the Latin tremere (tremble) or trimodia (3 pecks, referring to dry measurement)
- Moil (hard work, toiling) influenced sense of turmoil
If you have visited The New York Times online recently, you’ve probably seen something like this front and center:
Not a week ago, the Times used “Crisis in Ukraine” as its section header as opposed to turmoil. This change is subtle but meaningful, and it raises many questions. How do we give name to conflicts? How does a crisis represent and construct a conflict differently than turmoil does? Are we reporting on the situation in, say, Syria in different language than we are in Ukraine? When does a crisis or turmoil escalate into war?
At the Mashed Radish, of course, our concerns wax etymological. So, what are the origins of crisis and turmoil?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the earliest use of crisis was pathological. In 1543, it referred to a
point in the progress 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.
This, then, would illuminate the notion of a patient being in “critical condition.” But crisis had an astrological valence, too, the OED continues, as it was
said of conjunction of the planets which determines the issue of a disease or critical point in course of events.
Our medical understanding has certainly evolved, though recoveries can sometimes seem just as magical.
As of 1659, crisis was generalized, a “turning point” applied especially to “times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce” (OED).
The, um, critical elements in these definitions are “decisive” and “determines.” For, the root of crisis is the Greek κρίσις (krisis), formed on the verb krinein. Literally, it meant a “separating” or a “sifting”; figuratively, it meant a “judgment” or a “decision.”
What sparked this krisis? The Proto-Indo-European *krei- or *ker-. Joseph Shipley glosses the root as “scratch, cut, pluck, gather, dig, separate, sift,” and observes of it: “This is another prolific root, for scratching became writing; and sifting led to judging, discriminating; and cutting led to the use of cut things, as bark, hide, and food.”
The root of the crisis is a sieve.
Focusing on the “sifting” lineage of *krei-/*ker-, here are some notable descendants:
At the heart of each of this we find the central metaphor of sifting and separating. Crime is a particular standout. It’s from the Latin crimen (via cernere, “to separate,” responsible for such forms as discern and concrete). Here’s Partridge sharp synopsis, though a bit in dictionary-ese, which also demonstrates a basic process of semantic change through transferred meanings: “Crimen, that which serves to sift (hence, decide), esp legal one, hence accusation, finally, object of accusation,–misdeed itself, the crime.”
And riddle? Not riddle as in the word puzzle but riddle as in making many holes in something: “You’re report is riddled with typos” or “the windshield was riddled by the hailstorm.” It was passed down from the Old English hriddel. Old English was riddled with since-lost word-initial h‘s.
The origin of turmoil is, well, in turmoil. First attested in 1526, the OED lists its origin as “unascertained,” (speaking of ascertain) but we do have some interesting leads. It’s possible that turmoil is from the Middle French tremouille, a “mill hopper,” “in reference to its constant motion to and fro” (ODEE). This tremouille could be from the Latin root tremere, “to tremble.” Or it could be from the Latin trimodia, “a measure of three pecks” (Traupman). A modius, or a “peck,” was 1/6th of a bushel.
According to the British and American systems of dry measure, however, two pecks made a kenning and four pecks a bushel. So, 1/4th of a bushel. but that’s so 14th-century. The peck has stuck around, though, at least when it comes to selling apples.
See, you really do need to watch out for those costermongers. Er, crisis-mongers.
The sense of turmoil is likely influenced by turn and moil, “hard work.” Indeed, the OED cites in 1569 uses of turmoil as “harassing labor” and “toil.” Through French forms meaning to “moisten,” this moil goes back to the Latin mollis, “soft.” Wet, soft? What does this have to do with drudgery? Dr. Johnson may provide the missing link, as he defines moil as “to labour in the mire.”
While etymologically unrelated, a moil can also refer to a hornless cow, the glass left on a pontil in glass blowing, and a variety of apples. A peck of moils, if you will.
What we are witnessing in places like Ukraine is certainly no peck of moils, of course. The origin of crisis and turmoil equip us with no political tactics. Nor is etymology diplomacy. But their root metaphors do prove apt. Events unfold in what seems like constant motion and solutions require real toiling. And we wait to see if situations resolve for better or for worse.
Here’s hoping for the better, or, as we might have said in the 1700s, for a “favourable crisis.”