Chinese word for "crisis"
The Chinese word for "crisis" (simplified Chinese: 危机; traditional Chinese: 危機; pinyin: wēijī) is frequently invoked in Western motivational speaking because the word is incorrectly thought of as being composed of two separate Chinese characters representing "danger" and "opportunity". Some linguists have likened this interpretation to an etymological fallacy, pointing out that the character pronounced jī (simplified Chinese: 机; traditional Chinese: 機) does not in fact mean "opportunity", and noting that these two characters seldom appear on their own.
American linguist Benjamin Zimmer has traced mentions in English of the Chinese term for "crisis" as far as an anonymous editorial in a 1938 journal for missionaries in China. But its use probably gained momentum in the United States after John F. Kennedy employed this trope in speeches in 1959 and 1960:
In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters,
one representing danger and the other, opportunity.
Referencing the word has since become a staple meme for American business consultants and motivational speakers, as well as gaining popularity in educational institutions, politics and in the popular press. For example, in 2007, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice applied it during Middle East peace talks. Former Vice President Al Gore did so both in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, in the introduction of An Inconvenient Truth, and in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture.
Chinese philologist Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania states the popular interpretation of wēijī as "danger" plus "opportunity" is a "widespread public misperception" in the English-speaking world. While wēi (危) does mean "dangerous" or "precarious", the element jī (机) is highly polysemous. The basic theme common to its meaning is something like "critical point". "Opportunity" in Chinese is instead a compound noun that contains jī, jīhuì (机会, literally "meeting a critical point").
- Zimmer, Benjamin. "Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens". Language Log. Retrieved 30 May 2015.
- Chinese Recorder (January 1938, "The Challenge of Unusual Times")
- Zimmer, Benjamin (27 March 2007). "Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens". Language Log. Retrieved 19 January 2009.
- Speeches by President Kennedy at United Negro College Fund fundraiser, Indianapolis, Indiana, 12 April 1959, and Valley Forge Country Club, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 29 October 1960
- Kessler, Glenn (2007-01-19). "Rice Highlights Opportunities After Setbacks On Mideast Trip". The Washington Post. p. A14. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
- Testimony of Honorable Al Gore[dead link]
- Gore, Al (2007-12-10). "Al Gore: The Nobel Peace Prize 2007: Nobel Lecture". Oslo: Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
- Zimmer, Benjamin (22 March 2007). "Stop Him Before He Tropes Again". Language Log. Retrieved 19 January 2009.
- Mair, Victor H. (2005). "danger + opportunity ≠ crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray". PinyinInfo.com. Retrieved 15 January 2009.