Word Stories: Crux


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Have I ever told you about how much I love words? Flippin’ love them. How could you not with words like “knave” and “cacophony” and “gush”? Prepositions are the best, though—you can put on, put aside, put up with…


Sometimes I suspect that I enjoy climbing just for the jargon. It’s the perfect sport to throw around weird lingo and words like “gaston” to show (or pretend) you know what you’re talking about, or using “pumped” correctly (I didn’t know for a long time that pumped was not a thing you wanted to be).

Because climbing language is so rich (and because words are just plain fun) today I thought we’d dive into the backstory of one of the climbing words that you hear everywhere, from bouldering to climbing in the gym to high-altitude mountaineering.

The word: crux
Part of speech: noun
Plural: cruxes, cruces
Meaning: The most difficult move on a climb or the hardest part of the route.

Cruxy”: adj. A climb is said to be cruxy if it has several hard sections interspersed with relatively easy sections.
“Cruxing out” v. Reaching your physical or mental limit on a climb

What it means in climbing

In the world of climbing, the crux is “The most difficult move on a climb or the hardest part of the route.” This can be a physical crux, like when your muscles start shaking so much that you literally just fall off the climb. But the crux can be mental, too—heck, maybe just getting on the wall is the crux for that day.

While on a lot of climbs the crux is an agreed-upon spot, a crux can be personalized, too. A section of tiny crimps might be devastating for your large-handed friend, while a climb featuring 30 feet of sandstone slab might have you wishing  you could borrow some suction cups for your hands and feet to survive. The crux could be different from one day to the next, too—remember that time you couldn’t untangle the rope and you felt like the whole world was watching you struggle?

When “crux” became an English word

Crux didn’t enter English until the mid-1600s, and when it did it referred to the representation of a Christian cross. English speakers snatched it directly from Latin.

It was kind of a weird time in history for that to happen. Usually, many of the Latin-based words  in English came to much earlier, from the French during the Norman invasion back in the 11th century. Plus, since Henry VIII’s reign at the start of the 1500s, England had primarily been a Protestant nation (except for Queen Mary I), and at the time, speaking Latin was associated with the Catholic —so you’d think that there would be fewer Latin words running around and joining English for the first time. But who knows? Folks could have been using the word for a long time before it was first written down.

meanings evolve

In Latin, “crux” primarily referred to a wooden instrument of execution. Jeez. And we *think* that root came from Proto-Indo-European *(s)ker- ‎(“to turn, to bend”), though since my source there is Wiktionary, we have to take it with some healthy skepticism.

When crux entered English, we got a lot of other words as well (bonus!), including crucial (“decisive or critical, especially in the success or failure of something”) and excruciating (“intensely painful”). Excruciating comes from the original Latin meaning of “torture”. As anyone who’s ever flailed on a climb can tell you, that one is pretty spot-on.

So with a word that originally referred to a wooden means of execution, when did it become the word we know today? It took about a hundred years after entering English to pick up today’s more common meaning, a central difficulty or decisive, challenging part.

One question I haven’t figured out, is why and when climbers in particular took crux and made it part of the lingo. Only one of the standard dictionaries I checked included the climbing-specific meaning, so there’s just not a lot of information out there (it’s worth noting that the meaning of “crux” was nearly the same in every climbing dictionary I checked, so gold star for consistency to climbers).

My guess is that the climbing-specific meaning will start popping up in more standard dictionaries as climbing continues to become more known and popular. When that happens, we might learn more about the word’s history itself.

Or maybe not. Maybe that meaning doesn’t need to be recorded officially in standard dictionaries—maybe it’s a word like “rope” or “partner,” common, everyday words that are elevated to something special when we talk about climbing.

(If you want a more comprehensive dictionary/glossary of climbing terms, take a look at REI, Mountain Project, and the British version here).

Which words do you like best? Share in the comments below!


3 thoughts on “Word Stories: Crux

  1. Jane says:

    Molly, I love that you can bring some of your English expertise into climbing jargon! Your post made me curious, so I checked the OED to see if they had more info. Their first example for the climbing-specific use of crux was 1895 (W. P. H. Smith in Climbing in Brit. Isles II. 30 “There is but one slight difficulty before reaching the grand crux at the head.”) In other news, I’m heading to the climbing wall tonight to try to get past a few cruxes 🙂


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