Earlier this week I heard Al Gore speak at a rally in favor of Proposition 87, a question on the ballot this year here in California that will authorize more taxes to pay for research into alternative energy sources. Political rallies and demonstrations in Berkeley are hardly notable, but it’s not everyday that you get the opportunity to hear a former vice president and since the rally was literally around the corner from our office a group of us spent our lunch hour listening to Gore.
He was, obviously, in favor of alternative energy and the proposition, but he also said something that raised my linguistic skepticism. Gore repeated the old chestnut that the Chinese word for crisis was formed from two characters, one meaning danger and the other opportunity, thus a crisis is really a two-edged sword. I had, of course, heard this one before, but this time I was motivated to look into whether or not it was really true.
I found the answer in the first Google search result. An essay by Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, conclusively debunks this old saw.
The Mandarin word for crisis is w?ij?, and when written is composed of two characters w?i and j?. And w?i is indeed also used to mean danger.
So far so good. But j? does not mean or connote opportunity. J? has a variety of meanings in Mandarin. It can mean critical moment or turning point. So w?ij? does not mean danger + opportunity, so much as it means dangerous point in timea pretty accurate translation of the English crisis. J? can also mean quick-witted, resourceful, and machine or device, none of which are particularly relevant here.
The confusion may have arisen because j? is also one of the syllables in the Mandarin word for opportunity. That word is j?huž, where huž means occasion. But j? in and of itself does not mean opportunity or anything close to it.
The English word crisis is a direct lift from Latin, which in turn takes it from the Greek, ??????, meaning decision. English use of the word dates to the mid-16th century when it was used to mean a turning point in the course of a disease, a point that would either result in the patient’s recovery or death. Bartholomew Traheron’s 1543 translation of Vigon’s The Most Excellent Workes of Chirurgerye defines the term as:
Crisis sygnifyeth iudgemente, and in thys case, it is vsed for a sodayne chaunge in a disease.
This medical sense of crisis isn’t much used anymore, but the adjective critical still refers to such a turning point in a patient’s health.
By 1627, crisis was being used to mean a turning point in things other than medicine. And by the 18th century it had acquired its current meaning of a time of danger or insecurity. From Myles Davies’s Athenæ Britannicæ of 1715:
Great Crisises in Church and State.
And from the Junius Letters of 1769:
To escape a crisis so full of terror and despair.
Mair’s essay can be found at
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton