Friday, September 23, 2011

FW: A Phrase A Week - May you live in interesting times


May you live in interesting times


May you experience much disorder and trouble in your life.


While purporting to be a blessing, this is in fact a curse. The expression is always used ironically, with the clear implication that 'uninteresting times', of peace and tranquillity, are more life-enhancing than interesting ones.

May you live in interesting times'May you live in interesting times' is widely reported as being of ancient Chinese origin but is neither Chinese nor ancient, being recent and western. It certainly seems to have been intended to sound oriental, in the faux-Chinese 'Confucius he say' style, but that's as near to China as it actually gets. Confucius's actual sayings are as elusive as those of his western counterpart Aesop - we have no written records from either of them.

The phrase was introduced in the 20th century in the form 'interesting age' rather than 'interesting times' and appears that way in the opening remarks made by Frederic R. Coudert at the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 1939,

Some years ago, in 1936, I had to write to a very dear and honored friend of mine, who has since died, Sir Austen Chamberlain, brother of the present Prime Minister, and I concluded my letter with a rather banal remark, "that we were living in an interesting age." Evidently he read the whole letter, because by return mail he wrote to me and concluded as follows: "Many years ago, I learned from one of our diplomats in China that one of the principal Chinese curses heaped upon an enemy is, 'May you live in an interesting age.'" "Surely", he said, "no age has been more fraught with insecurity than our own present time." That was three years ago.

This citation has to be treated with caution as Chamberlain didn't speak Chinese and never visited China, although he was in contact with diplomats stationed there during his time as British Foreign Secretary, that is, 1924-1929. We have the 1939 citation in print, so the 'interesting age' form must be at least that old. If we are to believe Coulson's assertion, the phrase dates from before 1936 and, if we trust in Chamberlain's recollection, we can push the origin back to pre-1929.

As to the currently used 'interesting times' version, we can only date that to post WWII. In a speech to the 2nd session of the US Congress in August 1946, Senator Robert Byrd addressed a remark to Harry S. Truman:

Mr. President, there is an old Chinese curse that says, 'May you live in interesting times.'

Most generations think their times are especially troubling - now as ever. Senator Byrd probably had a better reason than many to call 1940s USA 'interesting', as it was less than a year after the US's use of atomic bombs and the surrender of Japan and Germany in WWII and only a month or two after Winston Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech, made in Fulton, Missouri, warning of the rise of Soviet power.

I hope you found that interesting.

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