It's been a while since we've seen our old friend, the crisis-(danger)-opportunity trope. In its canonical form, the trope asserts that the Chinese character for "crisis" is a combination of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." A simpler variation removes the "danger," suggesting that the Chinese character (or word) for "crisis" is the same as that for "opportunity" (sometimes stated as a proverbial equivalence: "The Chinese say that crisis is opportunity" or "…in crisis lies opportunity").
With or without the "danger" element, the trope is a favored rhetorical gesture by politicians and other public figures looking to pivot from pessimism to optimism. The roster of prominent American trope-users includes John Foster Dulles, John F. Kennedy, Condoleezza Rice, and Al Gore (a repeat offender). Now President Obama joins the list, but thankfully he omits the largely bogus framing device about Chinese hanzi (along with the "danger").
In his weekly address, Obama said:
Yes, this is a moment of challenge for our country. But we've experienced great trials before. And with every test, each generation has found the capacity to not only endure, but to prosper — to discover great opportunity in the midst of great crisis.
I wonder if an earlier version of the address used the full-fledged "Chinese character" line, but then the speech-writers did some legwork, perhaps finding Victor Mair's thorough debunkage on Pinyin.info, or even some of the trope-tracking we've done here on Language Log. Here's a list of our posts on the topic:
- "Crisis ≠ Danger + Opportunity" (ML, 4/29/05)
- "Etymology as argument" (ML, 6/18/05)
- "Hollywood glamour, activist passion, false rhetoric" (ML, 4/24/06)
- "Rice v. Mair" (ML, 1/27/07)
- "Stop him before he tropes again" (BZ, 3/22/07)
- "Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens" (BZ, 3/27/07)
- "Trope-watch, Oslo edition" (BZ, 12/11/07)
My post of 3/27/07 gives most of the historical background, taking the trope back to Christian missionaries in China in the 1930s. It also gives a few "danger"-less examples, my favorite of which is this one from "The Simpsons":
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.
Now, according to the President, we are presented with a cris-atunity of our own.
(Hat tip, Randy Alexander.)