Friday, April 18, 2008

Myth: Crisis = Danger + Opportunity?

Here's a little myth-of-the-minute. It's said that the Chinese word for "crisis" is made up of symbols that mean "danger" and "opportunity". But it turns out that this is not true. The Chinese word is wēijī, which is composed of characters wēi and jī. wēi means "danger", but jī does not mean "opportunity"!
The of wēijī, in fact, means something like "incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes)." Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.

Aside from the notion of "incipient moment" or "crucial point" discussed above, the graph for by itself indicates "quick-witted(ness); resourceful(ness)" and "machine; device."
The word for opportunity, is actually jīhuì. Huh.

Let's hope no one's been taking unnecessary risks based on the justification that the Chinese language told them to. I'm talking to you, JFK, Al Gore, and Condoleezza Rice.

Even if it were true that
jī meant opportunity, I've got to categorize this as some variation on the equivocation fallacy or etymological fallacy. The equivocation fallacy is when you switch around different definitions of a single word. The etymological fallacy is when you assume that a word or expression's historical meaning must be similar to its current meaning.

Just because some particular language gives a word two definitions doesn't mean that those definitions are the same. Similarly, the fact that some particular language joins two words to make a new one doesn't necessarily signify anything. Someone at Language Log compared such reasoning to trying to analyze "butterfly" in terms of its constituent parts, "butter" and "fly". Next, try "hangover" or "checkmate", see if that gets you anywhere.