Lee Abrams Don't Know Chinese

Tribune Co. Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams begins his latest think piece, titled "Cutting Through Crisis," this way:

"When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters: On represents danger, the other opportunity. I'm not sure if that's the literal translation, but pretty well said."

Well said, indeed -- and oft-parroted by politicians, business leaders, self-help gurus, therapists, and now chief innovation officers. But patently untrue. In actuality, the Chinese word is formed by two characters, wei and ji. Wei does indeed mean danger, but ji doesn't mean opportunity, it means "crucial point" or "moment." How this got mangled in pop American culture is complicated, but if you're really interested, read this essay by Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at Pennsylvania University. Here's a passage:  

A whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation. A casual search of the Web turns up more than a million references to this spurious proverb. It appears, often complete with Chinese characters, on the covers of books, on advertisements for seminars, on expensive courses for "thinking outside of the box," and practically everywhere one turns in the world of quick-buck business, pop psychology, and orientalist hocus-pocus.


Fortunately, an astute Tribune staffer posted a comment on the think piece correcting Abrams and citing the evidence. But Lee can count himself in good company. In a Wikipedia page devoted to the misnomer, it is traced back to a speech by John F. Kennedy. Lisa from The Simpsons also repeated the error to Homer, who coined the term "crisitunity."

After the jump, read the entire piece, which, disappointingly contains very little original Abrams. Instead it's full of quotes about change and crisis from Steve Jobs, Bob Dylan, Mark Cuban and a host of others. And this week it's blue! 

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman