Crisis and Opportunity in the President’s speech

Written by Julen Madariaga on January 20th, 2009

I can’t wait to see the speech tonight. I have spent the whole midday lunch hour (and a bit more) tinkering with the NYT and others speech analysis sites. I have learnt more about the speeches of previous American presidents that I ever knew before. And in particular I have learnt one surprising detail.

Those who have been following this blog from the beginning might remember that initial article I wrote about the Crisis and the Great Wall of China, which was published/linked by a few of the big guys and helped put my English blog in orbit. Well, that post contained the old gag of Crisis and Opportunity -both words sharing one character in Chinese- which was at the core of its reasoning.

The detail I found with some embarrassment today is that this is a widely used rhetorical device in American politics, probably first included by JFK in a few of his speeches. Of course I never pretended I’d invented it myself,  I guess I just heard it somewhere, but I had no clue it was so well known. Following my internet search for the origin of the expression, I ended up in a very popular blog which is an authority in Language use, the Language Log. There I read that my wordplay was just is “a misperception”:  危机 (weiji) doesn’t really originate from “Dangerous opportunity”. Etymologically, that is.

I don’t mind some experts contesting the origin of the expression. Actually I hold my own opinion that, even if the strict etymology of the word is not “dangerous opportunity”, it is obvious to all Chinese that the character 机 of Crisis is part of the very common word 机会 (opportunity). Knowing how Chinese love playing with their language, it is certain that millions of times this parallel Crisis-Opportunity must have been drawn in China. A more interesting question is to know if this expression actually describes the Chinese character, which I hope is properly settled in that old post of mine.

But what I do find a bit embarrassing is to realize that half the World was already aware of my little Chinese wordplay that I thought so clever. To the point that even Homer Simpson knew:

Lisa:  Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use
       the same word for "crisis" as they do for "opportunity"?
Homer: Yes! Cris-atunity.
From chapter "fear of flying", 1994

And now, back to the Inaugural speech. I have to be off in a minute to our own inaugural party in Shanghai, but let me briefly comment that there is a slight chance that the Crisis-Opportunity gag will make it into the speech. After all, the time is exactly right, the Crisis is there, China as well, and many are speculating that Obama might echo Kennedy’s famous speeches.

Although, to tell you the truth, I very much doubt it. Obama is a better speaker than that, and beyond those old formulas. I am sure he is going to coin something big instead, one of those phrases that tomorrow people will be muttering in the office, and which for generations to come will be copied by lesser speechwriters (and bloggers) in search of inspiration…

Let’s see what happens.

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