We’ve all heard the New Age-y proverb about the Chinese word for “crisis” being a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” (I just ran across the canard in the 2001 CLCV Scorecard [good luck finding it online; it seems to be long gone] and my skepticism was immediately piqued.)

According to a Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, it’s pretty much bullshit.

On his web page entitled “danger + opportunity ≠ crisis,” Professor Victor H. Mair writes:

The explication of the Chinese word for crisis as made up of two components signifying danger and opportunity is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages. For example, one of the most popular websites centered on this mistaken notion about the Chinese word for crisis explains: “The top part of the Chinese Ideogram for ‘Crisis’ is the symbol for ‘Danger’: The bottom symbol represents ‘Opportunity’.”

He goes on to explain the three fatal errors in this misconception:

  1. Chinese characters aren’t “ideograms,” because they don’t strictly represent a single idea; they’re better described as “logographs, sinographs, hanograms, tetragraphs (from their square shapes [i.e., as shapes [i.e., as fangkuaizi]), morphosyllabographs, etc., or — since most of those renditions may strike the average reader as unduly arcane or clunky — simply as characters.”
  2. The word for “crisis” (wēijī) isn’t expressed as a single character; it “consists of two syllables that are written with two separate characters, wēi (危) and jī(機/机).”
  3. Finally (and most importantly), jī doesn’t mean “opportunity;” it’s closer to “incipient moment” and doesn’t really stand alone anyway (similar to an English suffix or prefix).

So there.

Cecil Adams tackled the subject, as usual, in his endearingly glib fashion, way back in 2000.

Of course, that means someone at CLCV (I wasn’t there yet) could have looked it up at the end of 2001 when they wrote the Scorecard. Google already existed in the same basic form at the end of 2001 as it does now, and it was on the Straight Dope site even then. (I believe we’ve improved our fact-checking abilities.)

Speaking of crisis, go see Crisis Hopkins this weekend or next. They’re hilarious.