Cris-atunity revisited

Benjamin Zimmer of Language Log has had a couple of recent posts on the crisis = danger + opportunity myth. First, in Stop him before he tropes again, he takes Al Gore to task for repeating the myth (again).

Then Zimmer posted his findings that the myth “was in use among Christian missionaries in China as early as 1938 and creeping into American public discourse by 1940.” (See Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens.) Nice work!

Meanwhile, Gary Feng of Shadow has voiced a dissenting position that “the urban myth has some kernel of truth in it.”

One thought on “Cris-atunity revisited

  1. It seems to me that the different views on the validity of the “cris-atunity” interpretation of w?ij? (Mair vs. Feng) result from two very different understandings of what we mean by “meaning” in this case. The answer you get depends on whether you are interested in the etymology of the word or the modern connotations of its component morphemes. I would say there is no doubt at all that in terms of the origin of the word the “cris-atunity” interpretation is a myth. At the time the word was coined it was a compound noun phrase centered on the morpheme meaning j? ‘juncture’. Feng makes a different but no less valid argument; that modern speakers of Chinese induce a connotation for the morpheme j? based on the various compound words it occurs in. In other words, the meaning of j? may have shifted over time. Based on a non-etymological “positive” interpretation of the sense of j?, some of these native Chinese speakers may very well develop a folk etymology for the word w?ij? that mirrors the “danger+opportunity” myth. And they may very well begin to use the morpheme j? in the new sense of “opportunity” in the creation of new compound words. But that is all irrelevant to the factual origin of the word.

    I suspect that the Westerners who invoke the “crisis = danger + opportunity” notion are thinking of etymology — they are hoping to bolster their rhetorical effect by calling on the supposed wisdom of the ancient Chinese. In this sense, then, Mair is right.

    The way I see it, if people want to view crises as opportunities, more power to them. A made-up etymology of a word in a foreign language shouldn’t be necessary to justify such a position.

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