March 22, 2007

Stop him before he tropes again

Al Gore hauled out one of his favorite factoids while testifying about global warming before two different congressional committees yesterday. His first stop on Capitol Hill was before the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee, where his prepared comments read as follows (text, PDF):

As many know, the Chinese expression for "crisis" consists of two characters side by side. The first symbol means "danger." The second symbol means "opportunity." I would like to discuss both the danger and the opportunity here today.

Gore has been using this rhetorical flourish for a while now: the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair featured a piece by Gore somewhat ironically entitled "The Moment of Truth," in which he peddled the same linguistic canard. As Mark Liberman noted at the time, the "crisis = opportunity + danger" myth has been thoroughly debunked by Victor Mair in an essay posted on the website (There's even a helpful Wikipedia page on the topic now.) But in Gore's oral testimony yesterday, he diverged from his written statement and injected even further misinformation.

Before the House committee, he said:

As many of you know, the way that the Chinese and the Japanese, both of whom use the so-called kanji characters, express the concept of "crisis," they use two symbols together. And the first one means "danger" and the second means "opportunity."
(C-SPAN video, beginning around 1:01:25)

Then when he headed over to the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, he gave a slightly rephrased version:

As many of you know, the Chinese and Japanese way of expressing the concept "crisis" in kanji characters uses two symbols. The first means "danger" and the second means "opportunity."
(C-SPAN video, beginning around 0:49:40)

Gore manages to compound the original error by using the term kanji to refer to Chinese and Japanese writing systems, when it properly denotes only the Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters. It would be nice if Gore could get his linguistic facts straight, but I wouldn't count on him abandoning the "crisis = opportunity + danger" device any time soon. I don't think any amount of debunkage would stop him or other public figures — such as Condoleezza Rice — from using this handy trope, as it has been kicking around American political discourse since John F. Kennedy's time.

The excellent new Yale Book of Quotations (edited by Fred Shapiro) traces the "crisis = opportunity + danger" myth back to a speech that Kennedy gave to the Convocation of the United Negro College Fund in Indianapolis on April 12, 1959, when he was still a senator with presidential ambitions. (The JFK Library's website has a transcript of the speech along with scans of three working drafts.) Kennedy said:

When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters — one represents danger and one represents opportunity.

The "dangers" Kennedy spoke of mainly consisted of Cold War concerns, from the military and economic growth of the Soviet Union to the launching of Sputnik. The "opportunities" had to do with advances in space exploration, atomic energy and automation, as well as the possibility for "poverty to be abolished everywhere in the world" thanks to "modern science and technology." And there was the hope that "new developments in means of transportation and communication offer the opportunity to extend the principles on which we based our republic to all mankind." (Sounds vaguely neoconservative.)

Though the geopolitical context of Kennedy's usage was quite different from Gore's, the trope was deployed for similar effect: as a framing technique for describing current perils posed by a particular world crisis and future possibilities for resolving that crisis. Thus it allows the speaker to shift rhetorical footing from pessimism to optimism, ending with an upbeat tone and a call to action. You can see why no one from Kennedy to Rice to Gore would want the messy actualities of the Chinese writing system to get in the way of such a handy discursive device.

[Update, 3/25/07: Zev Handel emails with some good points about kanji in English usage:

I enjoyed reading your most recent post on Al Gore's use of the old "Chinese word for 'crisis' trope". But you made one statement that I'm not sure I agree with:
"Gore manages to compound the original error by using the term kanji to refer to Chinese and Japanese writing systems, when it properly denotes only the Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters."
"Kanji" is of course the Japanese term for Chinese characters. In the Japanese language, it can be used to refer to either the Chinese characters as they are used within the multi-script Japanese writing system, or to Chinese characters in general, as used in Chinese, Korean, or elsewhere.
Specialists who use the term in English tend to reserve it to designate Chinese characters as used in Japanese writing, as you say. After all, it's a Japanese word. However, it seems to me that "kanji" is now, at least in some parts of the US, a genuine English word, having been borrowed and assimilated into English. What exactly does "kanji" mean in its lay usage in English? In my experience, it is used to refer to Chinese characters, without distinguishing the writing system they are employed in. Indeed, the term seems to be most widely used in English in the context of individual characters as tattoos -- a context in which the language being written is unclear. In this usage the meaning of the English term is actually pretty congruent to its meaning in Japanese.
So maybe Gore wasn't wrong in his usage of "kanji" after all. Unless I'm wrong in my impression of the semantics of this word as an English word.

For more on "kanji tattoos" see the links (like this one) on Hanzi Smatter, a website dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters.]

[Update, 3/27/07: JFK was not the first to use the trope, as it can be documented for more than two decades before his usage. Details here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 22, 2007 12:44 PM