A couple of years ago I posted about the well-worn cliche that “crisis” in Chinese is “danger + opportunity.” At that time I had no timeline for the use of the trope, but Language Log has been on the case for some time, and recently Ben Zimmer traced it back to a 1959 speech by John F. Kennedy. Now (through clever tweaking of GoogleBooks) he’s found it in the January 1938 issue of the Chinese Recorder, a journal for missionaries in China, and made the plausible suggestion that its wider spread was due to a 1940 Washington Post column by Dorothy Thompson. It’s a fine job of research, and it includes some interesting discussion of the extent to which the analysis of the Chinese character can be considered mistaken (discussion to some extent anticipated in the comment thread to my 2005 post, linked above).
Note to Google: Please do something about the stupid “snippet view” Ben complains about, which has been frustrating me as well lately.


  1. Snippet view… May Google live in interesting times!

  2. Very cool. I’ve always wondered what actual character(s) this was in reference to. Now, on to the legendary “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead”!

  3. For the Pepsi urban legend, see Snopes (though the treatment is frustratingly inconclusive).

  4. I agree the snippet view is quite frustrating. Sometimes the snippet is positioned so as to actually exclude the search term you’ve entered. And as Zimmer notes the dates (and other components of the citation) can be wrong in GBooks. It will not substitute, in scholarly research, for pulling the volume off the shelf and checking it. I’ve found pages on GBooks that are obscured by the hand flipping the pages through the scanner. Presumably that same hand is entering the bibliographic details into the computer, with equal care or lack thereof. It would be more accurate if GBooks were pulling the info right out of the library’s electronic catalog, but I don’t think they’re doing that.

  5. michael farris says:

    Another language urban legend bites the wax tadpole.

  6. Do Chinese ever make the “crisis-opportunity” equation? They do other folk-etymology things which are equally farfetched, so it’s not impossible.
    It’s easy enough to guess where this particular wax tadpole came from. My guess is that weiji “danger” and jihui “opportunity” are the first words most foreigners learned using the ji graph. (Whether there’s another word including ji meaning “crisis” exactly, I don’t know).
    Looking through my reverse Chinese-English dictionary, the majority of the relevant -ji words do mean “opportunity” in a favorable sense, and “opportunity” is in fact the head definition for that class of meanings. One classical meaning listed is “pivot” (including the concrete mechanical sense), which is the root metaphor. The sense of a turning point which could go either way is thus usually given a positive definition.
    The majority of words including -ji are just the names of different kinds of machines and gadgets. I am reminded of the history of European words for “engine”, which originally meant “trick” or “snare”.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, so it’s the same jī as in fēijī “plane” and shǒujī “cell phone”?
    And where outside of English does “engine” occur? All other European languages I know that much about have derivatives of Latin motor “mover”. (Even though cognates of “engineer” (n.) are all over the place.)

  8. David Marjanović says:

    The Urban Legends Reference Pages are great! I had no idea of the wax tadpole (still being awestruck by the fact that, in China, Coca Cola means “taste and enjoy”).
    Another click away I found car company acronyms: Ford = “fix or repair daily” or “found on road dead”, Fiat = “fix it again, Tony!”. I’ll jump at the opportunity to mention two German ones: Fiat = Fehler in allen Teilen “mistakes in all parts” or für Italiener ausreichende Technik “technology sufficient for Italians”. Of course the Latin teachers have their own: “oh that it may become [a car]“.
    Fitting that Fiat actually is an acronym: Fabbrica Italiana d’Automobili di Torino… or something.

  9. David,
    that reminds me of the old Czechoslovak nickname for Trabant, due to its plastic parts: BMV = Bakelitové Motorové Vozidlo (Bakelite Motor Vehicle). Hey, it even works in English :o)

  10. Do the Chinese use the “danger + opportunity” analysis?
    Well, my boss is Chinese and he does. But that doesn’t mean it’s a native Chinese analysis of the word. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it was borrowed by the Chinese from English-language sources. :) After all, it’s not as though it’s completely wacky — the analysis does work in Chinese. In fact, the Chinese are very good at “playing with characters”.
    As an aside, I’m still wondering about the origin of the word ‘weiji’. Was it made up by the Chinese themselves, or was it originally coined by the Japanese?

  11. In Spanish various words on ingen- mean engineer, ingenuity, talent, engine, contrivance.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    LOL! I’ve had the… pleasure of sitting in the rear of a Trabant once, so I understand why people would rather talk about having a BM[ve]. :-D

  13. marie-lucie says:

    There is also the French word “engin” which means something like a machine, with a slightly derogatory connotation, somewhat like “contraption” in English.

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