The Chinese word for “crisis” is an opportunity to stop clichés before they happen

How’s your daily life dealing with the Chinese virus? No, I’m not talking about the Wuhan virus, SARS-CoV-2, novel coronavirus, or whatever name you choose based on your political leanings. I’m talking about the viral spread of this notion that the Chinese — those clever sages of the East! — so craftily see “opportunity” in every crisis.

Don’t know this one? For you millennials, the observation is that

“In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.”

— John F. Kennedy

https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/life-of-john-f-kennedy/john-f-kennedy-quotations#C

Kennedy apparently cited this notion aplenty. In fact, he gets the “credit” for popularizing this idea, repeated ad nauseam by business leaders and politicians of all political persuasions.

You can see the appeal of this linguistic construction. If those inscrutable scholars of the Orient can see a chance for success in bankruptcy, earthquakes, and global pandemics, you can too! Remember, business leaders! Twenty years in prison for wire fraud is not the end — it’s an opportunity.

Only, of course, it’s not true.

Here are the traditional characters for wei ji. (The simplified form is at the top of the article.)

While wei (the first character) does mean dangerous, ji does not mean opportunity. By itself, it means… nothing. The confusion (willful or otherwise) comes from ji being a component of ji hui (机会), the actual Chinese word for opportunity.

So this idea is as inaccurate as the canard that apropos and appropriate are the same word because they share similar sounding syllables, or the one that gives you license to use stagnant and static interchangeably because the first three letters are the same.

It’s a useful cliché in a uniquely American way. It’s relentlessly optimistic. It’s positive and forward-looking. But it’s still a cliché, just like everything people cite from Art of War. And fortunately, it’s a cliché that seems to have fallen from favor — not, I suspect, from overuse, but rather from the relentless fact-checking, Twitter-canceling, and fears of “cultural appropriation” one risks by publishing this trope.

Which I suppose is for the better. I fully expected blog posts and podcasts rallying the business world to see the opportunity in this current crisis. But whether from pessimism, political correctness, or wariness of clichés, no one seems to be peddling it.

Oh wait.

Inc.: How to Find Opportunity Within a Crisis

Otto E. Mezzo

For an amazingly thorough linguistic takedown of weiji, this is the article you’re looking for: http://pinyin.info/chinese/crisis.html

References:
https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/life-of-john-f-kennedy/john-f-kennedy-quotations#C
https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/18/AR2007011801881.html
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004330.html
https://www.inc.com/maya-hu-chan/how-to-find-opportunity-within-a-crisis.html

About that classical literacy…

Earlier this year, I bemoaned Western civilization’s ignorance of our cultural signposts (the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek and Roman myths and history). Behold, I give you the Leader of the Free World.

In the midst of the 2020 coronavirus epidemic, White House social media director Dan Scavino tweeted this doctored image and macro text as the President faces criticism on his response.

“Who knows what this means…”? Clearly not this Wharton graduate.

Read also: https://theweek.com/speedreads/900761/trump-retweets-white-house-photo-fiddling-says-doesnt-know-what-means

http://lexicide.com/fighting-classical-illiteracy-a-sisyphean-task/

The Atlantic: Corporate Buzzwords Are How Workers Pretend to Be Adults

Lex and I launched Lexicide 11 years ago to grouse about corporate buzzwords — particularly those that changed the meaning of existing words and thus killed the original word (hence our coinage “lexicide”).

Alas, corporate-speak is still with us. And this excellent Atlantic article lays out the reason why. Using words wrongly is a shibboleth, a sort of pidgin that lets everyone in the office know you’re one of them. It’s all for show, of course, as this paragraph makes clear:

The fact that buzzwords are a joke even to many of the people who rely on them suggests that work, and its language, is a kind of pretense. And speaking the language of work reminds people that they’re pretending. Graeber remembers the first time he and all his high-school friends shook hands, as kind of a gag. It became a recurring joke, as in “Oh, this is what adults do.” “I think people in these offices are permanently caught at that moment,” he says. We’re forever “closing the loop” on things because of a vague notion that this is what adults do.

Or as the anthropologist David Graeber says elsewhere in the article, “[A]ll-purpose business language is the language you use when you aren’t really doing anything.”

Which circles back to Lex’s and my original pain point. Corporate writers and speakers really are pretending. They pretend they are experts in a subject, they pretend they care, and they certainly pretend they know what certain words mean. Whether from insecurity or con-artistry, it’s clear most of us in the business world are frauds, and corporate language is our sleight of hand.

Which is likely why no one cares they are misusing words. If it’s all a game of make-believe, then it doesn’t matter.

— Otto E. Mezzo

McWhorter: English is Not Normal

We have featured linguist extraordinaire John McWhorter here before. We would cite him more, but linguistics, including but not limited to grammar, is not our bag. Lexicide dishes on poor word usage, not bad spelling or conjugations.

But this article, offered up by pastor and good doctor of letters Jim, kinda sorta covers all three:

In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal….

Also:

There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third‑person singular. I’m writing in it….

Which leads Dr. McWhorter to ask:

Why is our language so eccentric? Just what is this thing we’re speaking, and what happened to make it this way?

He then proceeds on a tiny history lesson, touching on loanwords and couplets, which Lexicide also covered. It’s a great read, whether you love English or loathe it.

English is Not Normal by John McWhorter

Fighting classical illiteracy: a Sisyphean task

At the beginning of the month, I asked Lexicide’s followers this question:

I just read a news story referring to the Sword of Damocles. With the classics taught less and less in schools, do young people know what that is? How about the Augean stables? Achilles’ heel? Pandora’s box? Even “beware Greeks bearing gifts” assumes one knows the belligerents in the Trojan War.

What expressions — classical, Biblical, Shakespearean, etc — do you wonder will one day befuddle contemporary readers?

To my list, readers added Gordian knot, Oedipus complex, and crossing the Rubicon.

But then quite a few readers chafed at the idea one had to be classically read to understand and use these phrases. Surprisingly, the pushback came from a published novelist, a high school English teacher, and a college professor of ancient texts. Others scoffed at my concern, claiming we as a culture might lose the die is cast or the labors of Hercules, yet we gain new signposts such as taking the red pill.

I may just have my nose in the air, but I think knowing the source material makes these references richer and rounder in meaning – meaning which is sometimes lost without knowing the origin. Take sword of Damocles. Typically, writers use it to evoke a situation where danger could arise at any moment. But the reason King Dionysius hung a sword over his throne was to show his subject Damocles how tenuous his position was – that even though he was a great and wealthy king, enemies lurked behind every corner. So it’s not just an illustration of impending danger, but one caused by a station many regard as enviable.

People wash their hands of a problem to absolve themselves of responsibility. But did Pilate’s washing achieve this? (Anyone who recites the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed on Sunday would answer “no!”). And a Sisyphean task is not simply any vexing, annoying job. It’s one you must repeat over and over with nothing to show for it. The image of repeatedly muscling a massive boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down is much more evocative than simply confronting a difficult deliverable.

(Plus, dammit, these stories are just fun. The Aeneid and The Odyssey remain some of the most rousing adventures in print. Without their foundations, Percy Jackson and Wonder Woman, not to mention Lord of the Rings and the Legend of Zelda, wouldn’t have been worth their authors’ attention.)

What say you? Have you ever leveraged your liberal arts education on a masterful literary reference, only to be met with blank stares? If that isn’t cleaning the Augean stables, I don’t know what is.

See also Splitting the baby

Seen in WaPo: “splitting the baby”

Several moderates have privately pined for other options, including a censure vote they know they’re unlikely to get. Others have even considered what one moderate called “splitting the baby”: backing one article of impeachment but not the other to try to show independence from the party.

The Washington Post article is behind a paywall, so here is the MSN reprint for those who aren’t subscribers:

House Democrats brace for some defections among moderates on impeachment of Trump

As we discussed in our article on the phrase, most people use splitting the baby when they really mean splitting the difference. That seems to be the case here, with some politicians trying to have it both ways by voting yes on one impeachment article and no on another.

But wait. You could argue they have an intractable problem and need an unorthodox solution. It is possible their waffling will give Speaker Pelosi pause, possibly prevailing on her to call off impeachment (not likely), or else put enough threat in the air for President Trump to resign (even less likely). Recall that Solomon’s genius was not actually splitting the baby, but threatening to split the baby.

More likely, they know they have two masters to please and want to have it both ways. That being the case, they truly are trying to split the difference, as opposed to bisecting an infant. Good luck in today’s political climate. The one upside? According to the article, these fence-sitters are actually thinking about the impeachment articles. That’s more than most of us are doing.

– Otto E. Mezzo

Ukraine or The Ukraine?

Last month, we addressed which Latin spelling you should use: Kyiv or Kiev. Both have shown up in the U.S. press a lot more since the city figures large in a certain inquiry. One other linguistic bagatelle that makes an appearance amidst the political maneuverings is what to call Kyiv‘s country. Is it The Ukraine or simply Ukraine?

This question interests me since I studied Russian in college. What’s interesting is the Russian language (and the Ukranian language for that matter) lacks both indefinite and definite articles, so “The Ukraine” is an impossible construction.

What is possible in Russian is using the spatial preposition на as opposed to в. While many articles on the subject simplify the two by defining на as “on” and в as “in”, this is not strictly accurate. You use the preposition на (pronounced “na”) when speaking of general place concepts (“He is на concert. She is на market.”). The word на is also used for compass directions (“You will find polar bears на the North.”). To designate a physical place with real borders, Russians use в (pronounced “v”). This applies to all cities and states (“I live в Moscow. You studied в The United States.”).

Except Ukraine. During the Cold War The Kremlin would often speak of going на Ukraine, as if it were a concept, not a real place with real history. Ukranians know this, and they don’t like it. What does на have to do with The? Somehow when this diminishing made its way to English, it manifested itself in the definite article.

(Nina Jankowicz, who provided the very helpful pronunciation guide on Kyiv, has a parallel take on “The Ukraine“. Read her explanation here.)

As an aside, the whole linguistic journey from на украине to The Ukraine is very strange, and I have no idea who to blame. Several other countries use names that start with The, although these are either plural descriptors (The United States of America, The Netherlands) or archaic references to regions rather than sovereign states (The Sudan, The Congo). The one exception is The Gambia, or The Republic of The Gambia, as it is more formally known. Another observation: French (the other foreign language I know) routinely inserts the definite article in front of country names, which is why you say “Vive la France!” instead of “Vive France!

Anyhow, if the Foreign Policy article I cited is credible, “The Ukraine” is not only incorrect, but also offensive to the Ukranians. If you want to keep your Ukranian friends and business contacts, don’t say or write it.

 – Otto E. Mezzo

References:
foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/05/ukraine-name-insult-war-russia-geography/(opens in a new tab)
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/five-myths/five-myths-about-ukraine/2019/09/26/9c32e3be-dfcd-11e9-b199-f638bf2c340f_story.html

Chicken Kyiv and Beijing Duck

Like most Americans, I have followed the impeachment inquiry against President Trump with some interest – some, but not much. (Does that make me disinterested? Never!) What has caught my eye was the Latin alphabet transliteration Kyiv for the Ukranian capital city. What gives? I thought it was Kiev.

This calls to mind the shift I had to make with Beijing. For much of my 20th century childhood, we referred to China’s capital city as Peking, only for the more “correct” transliteration of Beijing to creep into learned circles in the late 1980s. While we might reasonably blame careless Western hearing for the “mistake,” the spelling Peking comes courtesy of the imperial postal service, as do the legacy place names Chungking, Nanking, and Tsingtao, all of which are preserved in the names of dishes, institutions, and beer. The People’s Republic of China established the Pinyin Romanization Beijing in 1958, so it only took thirty-odd years to filter out to the West.

Another place name I had to re-learn: Mumbai. The Indian megalopolis was officially Bombay until 1995, a name immortalized in a brand of gin, a Police song, and the nickname Bollywood. The Indian government changed the English spelling to better reflect the native pronunciation and shed vestiges of the colonial past. (For those of you who followed my demonym series, a resident of Mumbai is a Mumbaikar.)

So Kyiv or Kiev? CNN favors Kiev while FoxNews hews to Kyiv. The New York Times seems to go back and forth. The Washington Post is firmly in Kyiv’s camp, and even provides this handy guide to the “correct” pronunciation of the name, the correctness depending on whether you prefer the modern Ukranian pronunciation (Київ, pronounced like this) or the Russian Киев, which is a lot easier for Anglophones and will undoubtedly persist in Chicken Kiev and The Great Gate of Kiev (both Russian creations). But like Bombay, Kiev is a scar from an imperial past, one that even persisted beyond the czars – Stalin killed roughly ten million Ukranians in the Holodomor. Understandably, the newly independent Ukraine preferred the world use their city name rather than the Russian version, and made it official in 1995. I think I’ll go with the Ukranians on this one. I may even try out the authentic pronunciation (I’m used to stares by now).

But by all means, order your Chicken Kiev. Unless you’re trying to lose those Thanksgiving pounds. In which case you should also wave off the Crab Yangon.

References:
https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/18/politics/david-holmes-to-testify-thursday/index.html
https://www.foxnews.com/politics/sondland-bursts-the-perfect-bubble
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/politics/ambassador-ukraine-corruption-acid-impeachment.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/politics/ambassador-ukraine-corruption-acid-impeachment.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/13/us/politics/kiev-pronunciation.html