January 27, 2007

Rice v. Mair

Geoff Pullum has been making some headway against the Eskimo snow-words trope, and now the WaPo has quoted Victor Mair about how crisis is not really danger + opportunity in Chinese (Glenn Kessler, "Rice Highlights Opportunities After Setbacks On Mideast Trip", Washington Post, 1/19/2007):

At one point, Rice said that the difficult circumstances in the Middle East could represent opportunity. "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity," she said in Riyadh. "And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."

But Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, has written on the Web site http://pinyin.info, a guide to the Chinese language, that "a whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation." He said the character "ji" actually means "incipient moment" or a "crucial point." Thus, he said, a wei-ji "is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry."

The WaPo doesn't give you a direct link to Victor's discussion on the pinyin.info site, but we will: "danger + opportunity ≠ crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray". And we'll also reveal a speculation about where Condi got this comforting bit of rhetoric. This comes from a friend of Victor's, in response to the Kessler reference:

"I''ll bet Condi got WEI JI from former U.S. Secty. of State George Schultz at the same seminar I sat in about 17 years ago at the Hoover Inst. This was also the first time I heard the "Crisis-Opportunity" version of WEIJI -- from George Schultz himself. Condi was then a Hoover fellow, and she was in the room."

(If George Schultz's talk was in 1990, he might well have been talking about Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.)

We've blogged about this rhetorical point a couple of times, both on the specific issue ("Crisis ≠ Danger + Opportunity", 4/29/2005; "Hollywood glamour, activist passion, false rhetoric", 4/24/2006) and on the more general theme of (often false) etymology as argument:

"Etymology as argument", 6/18/2005
"Etymologyas argument again", 6/19/2005
"(Hallucinatory) etymology as argument", 7/11/2005
"Minorities as legal minors?", 7/19/2005
"Ayn Rand, linguist?", 3/15/2006

In the case under discussion, though, Glenn Kessler didn't bring Victor into the article just make a linguistic point by debunking the false analysis of 危機 (which of course is two characters, not one as Condi is quoted as suggesting). Instead, Kessler uses Victor's linguistic explanation to make a political point: perhaps the current Middle East situation is not a dangerous opportunity, but simply "a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry".

Condi's interpretation is the sentimental favorite: let's hope that her analysis of diplomatic opportunities is better than her analysis of Chinese compound words.

[Update -- David Denison writes:

Does the stuff about the Chinese word for crisis have anything to do with a very noticeable semantic change *purely within English* of the word crisis? (I've got nothing at all to add about the Chinese.) My point is merely that crisis used to mean "A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point" (part of OED definition in sense 3), a figurative extension of the medical sense (sense 1), "the turning-point of a disease for better or worse". A crisis was therefore something momentary, almost punctual in linguistic terms, and it carried no value judgement. You could argue that a crisis (in this sense) represents both an opportunity and a danger, but it doesn't actually MEAN either of those things.

Many people now use the word in a sense that has been further extended -- as the OED puts it: "now applied esp. to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce" (the continuation of the definition under sense 3). In this usage, it's not punctual at all and it is value-laden: crises are bad.

Your quotation from Professor Mair suggests that somebody might have consulted a Chinese-English dictionary which used the English word crisis in its older sense, and that at some stage, then or subsequently, the entry was interpreted wrongly with the current sense in mind.

Perhaps the historical development of the negative affect associated with English crisis is part of the story, but the central linguistic issue is that the association of the positive-affect English translation opportunity with Chinese JI -- in the context of the compound WEIJI -- is false.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 27, 2007 08:53 AM