Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Unsettling interpretation of Chinese characters? 'busy'

We all know the Language Log debunking of the story that in Chinese, the character for crisis is made up of danger + opportunity. (Here's one example.) Yesterday I was talking to somebody who said that they no longer use the word busy, because the Chinese character for busy is made up of heart + kill(ed). If you google this, you get a ton of new-agey sites (many of them christian), many using 'dead' instead of 'kill/killed'. Really?

Whatever the facts and history, Science had an article on mental health in China a couple years ago (Greg Miller, "China: Healing the Metaphorical Heart") and he quotes Dominic Lee (a psychiatrist) as saying "There are more than 100 Chinese characters for emotion that contain the heart symbol in combination with others," so the cliche may have its heart in the right place, at least.

Of course I don't quite get how this logic encourages you to change speech or other behavior. To people drinking coffee, maybe you could try saying "In my language, you know, the word for 'coffee' is 'goat piss'."



  1. No, no, that's beer.

  2. Well, the character 忙 does indeed include the radical 心 (meaning "heart") as well as 亡 (meaning "death" -- a component of 死亡 - si4wang2 "to die"). But I don't think it has anything to do with a deep meaning. Rather, I think 亡 is a phonetic component (忙 is pronounced mang2, similar to wang2).

    Oddly, the same two radicals appear in the character 忘 (wang4 "to forget"), just in different positions. Again, although this could have a more interesting metaphor (traditional Chinese culture puts conciousness an memory in the heart, so a death in the heart could be a metaphor for forgetting) it's more likely that the "death" component was intended as a phonetic guide.

  3. Anonymous6:12 PM

    Thanks a ton. That's exactly the info I was missing. Have you heard this as a kind of new age cliche?

  4. Honestly, no, I've never heard of it. Of course, I'm not so much into the New Age stuff. The 危机/crisis = danger + opportunity story is everywhere, but the busy story I haven't heard.

    Anyway, glad I could help. I'm no expert in Chinese, but I've learned enough by now to debunk rumors, double-check tattoos, and whatnot here and there.

  5. Anonymous9:28 AM

    Unfortunately, this is in a book by Alan H. Cohen who could be viewed as a "new age" writer. He makes the statement that the Chinese character for busy is a combination of two other characters: killing and heart. He gives no other explanation. As is often the case, these words are repeated as jewels of wisdom, without researching the truth.