Whose Opportunity is it Anyway?

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published April 17, 2012. I'm posting this one again now as a reminder to myself, and an encouragement to readers, to question assumptions in the New Year. And also because I'm a geek about words.

Today’s reflection actually occurred to me a few days ago, in the restroom. I don’t know what I was doing in there when I thought it – certainly not resting – but whatever it was took a long time. No doubt I was late for something, because the word ‘posthaste’ came into my mind. Sometimes it does. I don’t say it, but sometimes I think it. And whenever I think it, I think about how it makes no sense. It’s always meant “after haste” to me, as in postnatal and postgraduate and postcoital. How can “after haste” mean speedily, I asked myself, yet again. And that’s when I realized that it couldn’t. I’d been using the wrong meaning for 'post.' Of course ‘posthaste’ means to do something with the speed of the post. Pigeons used to be considered fast. Likewise ponies. Of course.

Not only had I been using the wrong meaning for 'post,' I had been using a really silly meaning for it. When I told my husband about my revelation, he smiled and patted me on the head. That’s how silly.

This revelation brought me back to the conversation I’ve been having with myself for a long time about how often people refer, particularly in motivational speeches, to how the Chinese word for crisis (危機, wēijī) means danger plus opportunity. Perhaps you’ve heard one of these speeches. John F. Kennedy talked about it in a speech to the Convocation of the United Negro College Fund in April of 1959, but apparently people have been invoking the concept for longer than that. Christian missionaries used it with regard to a push into the Chinese interior as early as 1938.

Here's what bothers me: The people who use wēijī in their speeches insist that the combination of these two characters means that the Chinese see a crisis as a good thing: that there’s always an opportunity afforded by the danger. But it isn’t necessarily so.

First of all, jī can mean opportunity, but it can also (in combination with other characters - the character never stands alone) mean something more like “incipient moment” or “crucial point.”Wēijī can therefore be interpreted to mean “the beginning of danger.”

(Incidentally, jī can also refer to a machine. Fēijī, or flying machine, means airplane. I suppose we could stretch airplane to mean “the opportunity to fly,” though.)

But even if people are right in thinking wēijī combines danger and opportunity, I’m not happy with their insisting that it means “danger plus opportunity." Wēijī could mean “danger opportunity," i.e. the opportunity for danger. It’s not necessarily your opportunity.

Sinologists out there will be patting me on the head now. They’ve been complaining about this misconception of the word for years and I’m suddenly calling it a revelation. I’m glad I finally looked into it, though. I’ve learned that I wonder about things to myself much longer than is useful, and I allow myself to think words like posthaste are just crazy when I’ve simply misunderstood them.

How many other things do I think are crazy because I haven’t really stopped to learn about them?

And how many do I believe in for the same reason?