/ˈɛksɪdʒ(ə)nsi/ /ˈɛgzɪ-; ɪgˈzɪdʒ(ə)nsi/. An instance of urgent, pressing demand or necessity. A desperate quality.
In the air and on the airwaves, amidst the smoke of burning forests and governmental dumpster fires, EX-igency (also pronounced ex-IGEN-cy because…language) is a dark thread in the Alaskan zeitgeist.
While not obsolete, exigency—a noun meaning an urgent, pressing demand—was never a common word and has suffered the further indignity, according to Google’s indispensable Ngram Viewer, of a nearly 90% decline in usage since its peak in 1812.
Exigency was first recorded in the late 1580s and those early uses were fittingly religious and political, such as when John Penry, who the OED remembers as a "Religious controversialist" wrote that he hoped
"our bishops do not thinke, that we..are brought to that exigencie, which the prophet threatneth should come vpon the people of Iudah."
Though often employed merely as a synonym for the more prosaic "demand," in the hands of a skilled author, the word exigency can imply a certain level of intensity and importance those synonyms lack.
In the prologue to his collection A Personal Anthology, Jorge Luis Borges was pulling no punches when he wrote—in a sentiment arguably more fitting now, in our era of endless autobiographical sharing and oversharing, than it was then–that
[Benedetto] Croce held that art is expression; to this exigency, or to a deformation of this exigency, we owe the worst literature of our time.
Or another writer-with-three-names, Joyce Carol Oates, who in her short story "Faithless" conveys the strange erotic quality of a medical device in the hands of just the right physical therapist by noting how the main character, pointedly named "Temple":
…tried, in the exigency of the hot-pack collar, to keep his voice level and casual.
Exigency came to English from the Latin "exigere" (to demand or require), a combination of "ex" (E-X, in this case meaning "out of" or "from" but which can also mean, for EXample, "upwards," "without," or "former") and agere (to do, perform, or drive forward).
And agere goes back to the rather versatile PIE root ag- (A-G, "to drive, draw out or forth, or move." This root is found in English words whose connection makes sense (allowing for the occasionally mystifying processes of changes in pronunciation), such as act, action and agenda, all of which relate to things being done, as well as many words with less obvious connections such as agony, which originates in the Greek agon, or an assembly, glucagon, a hormone named for its effect of driving glucose levels up in the blood, or my favorite—perhaps because it is one of my favorite states—hypnagogic, the drowsy state just before sleep when happy hallucinations in which financial exigency doesn’t exist can be enjoyed…along with occasional hypnagogic twitching.
Today, though its popularity has declined, the word exigency especially thrives in two specific contexts.
Watchers of Law & Order (and more than a few parents justifying snooping around their children’s rooms) will recognize the back-formation "exigent"—lawyers do love their legalese!—as in "exigent circumstances," or those situations in which the urgency would, and I quote here from a precedent-setting 1984 court decision,
cause a reasonable person to believe that entry (or other relevant prompt action) was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of the suspect, or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts
As many listeners will know, financial exigency has a specific meaning in another domain rife with its own lingo: higher education. As a declaration of last resort that allows for extreme, otherwise impossible cost-saving measures including cutting tenured faculty and termination of programs without necessarily allowing even currently enrolled students to finish them, financial exigency is a radical state the American Association of University Professors defines as:
…an imminent financial crisis which threatens the survival of the institution as a whole and which cannot be alleviated by less drastic means.
The mere prospect of financial exigency inspires fear in the university, its surrounding communities and bond rating agencies alike. And rightly so: financial exigency is more than just a generic description of a precarious financial position; it’s a symptom of an ongoing tragedy of continued cultural impoverishment. While different from bankruptcy, financial exigency is to the institution undergoing it as the prospect of amputation is to one battling cancer, and casual responses to the possibility sound to me like finding someone in front of their burning home and instead of helping put the fire out, glibly, cruelly reassuring them that a fire is the fastest way to clean house. As always with life and language, we can try to do better.