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Chinese word for "crisis": Wikis

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The Chinese word for "crisis" (simplified Chinese: 危机traditional Chinese: 危機pinyin: wēijīWade-Giles: wei-chi) is frequently invoked in motivational speaking along with the fallacious statement that the two characters it is composed of represent "danger" and (supposedly) "opportunity." Many linguists consider this idea to be a fanciful folk etymology, since the character alone does not necessarily mean "opportunity."

Analysis of wēijī

Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania has called the popular interpretion of wēijī in the English-speaking world a "widespread public misperception."[1] In fact, wēi () does roughly mean "danger, dangerous; endanger, jeopardize; perilous; precipitous, precarious; high; fear, afraid" (as in wēixiăn 危险, "dangerous"), but the polysemous () does not necessarily mean "opportunity." The compound noun jīhuì (机会) means "opportunity," but is only a part of it; has numerous meanings, including "machine, mechanical; airplane; suitable occasion; crucial point; pivot; incipient moment; opportune, opportunity; chance; key link; secret; cunning." More importantly, these are "secondary" meanings—according to Mair, only acquires the connotations of secondary meanings (such as "opportunity") when used in conjunction with another morpheme (in this case, in jīhuì); by itself, it does not have these meanings. Mair suggests that in wēijī is closer to "crucial point" than to "opportunity."[1]

Origins

Benjamin Zimmer has traced the history of weiji in English as far back as anonymous editorial in a journal[2] for missionaries in China.[3] The use of the term probably gained momentum when John F. Kennedy delivered a speech in Indianapolis on April 12, 1959:[3]

When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters.
One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.[4]

Kennedy employed this trope routinely in his speeches, and it was then appropriated by Richard M. Nixon and others. The usage has been adopted by business consultants and motivational speakers and has gained great popularity in universities and in the popular press. For example, in 2007, Condoleezza Rice repeated the misunderstanding during Middle East peace talks,[5] and Al Gore did so in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee,[6] and in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.[7]

Some linguists have attributed the appeal of this misinterpretation to its "handiness" as a rhetorical device and an optimistic "call to action."[8] Because of the attractiveness of this folk etymology, Mair has suggested that its popularity is due in part to "wishful thinking."[1]

References

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