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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

feng shui

(1980’s | journalese | “ancient Chinese wisdom”)

Many ancient east Asian concepts have been watered down, not to say altered beyond recognition, in their journey westward. I don’t know enough about feng shui to know where all the depredations have been wrought, but some diminution has surely taken place. LexisNexis yields few instances from the seventies, more from the eighties, in U.S. publications. By the late eighties, in fact, one commentator suggested that feng shui had effected a revolution in American interior decorating. A dead giveaway, because feng shui, incorporating concepts and practices that go back thousands of years, has nothing to do with arranging furniture. Yet most American references to it, then and now, involve home design, real estate, or good fortune; sometimes it devolves into naked consumerism, nothing more than buying good-luck charms and strewing them oh-so-precisely around your dwelling.

The expression seems to have become widely known in the U.S. during the nineties; before then it was more of an elitist thing. It’s used most often as a noun, but one certainly may encounter it as a verb, as in “how to feng shui your bedroom.” The Chinese pronunciation(s) is beyond me; I’ve always said “fung shuee,” but the articles that ventured an opinion back in the early days advised us to say “fung shuay.” Most sources agree that the literal translation is “wind [and] water,” suggesting a much closer connection with the natural world than with your apartment. There are different versions of the Chinese characters to be found on-line, so I’m reduced to showing options at Google Images, with no guarantee that the menu is exhaustive or accurate.

When the idea was still unfamiliar in these parts, more enlightened publications spoke darkly of geomancy and qi (also rendered “chi”), showing some grasp of feng shui’s primary principle, which is harmony with the natural world. Qi does not seem to be entirely translatable, but it involves currents of energy and force fields that western physics does not account for. Chinese philosophers regard the movement of qi as at least somewhat predictable, making it possible to study a landscape and understand where favorable and unfavorable energy are coursing. Astronomical and other data may be factored in. While feng shui may help determine the location and orientation of man-made structures, that is merely a corner of what it’s about. Just as westerners don’t have the proper understanding of the universe to grasp karma, we can’t make much sense of feng shui, so we dumb it down to a means of telling us where to put the sofa.

While feng shui in the west has become primarily an occasion for consumption, like everything else, feng shui consultants may do very well, too, collecting hefty fees and even preventing others from earning their share. Say a consultant advises against purchase of an expensive house because of its relation to the path of qi or some other ill omen, doing a real estate agent out of a good commission. I would certainly be skeptical if some old fart deprived me of thousands of dollars with some rigamarole about cosmic energy or facing southeast. I don’t know of any serious empirical evidence that feng shui “works,” whatever that might mean, but plenty of people are more than willing to subscribe to ancient Chinese wisdom, no matter how debased. Once you’ve subscribed, you will screen out evidence that feng shui is useless and exalt evidence that it brings you good fortune — such anti-empirical mental habits make up one of religion’s great tools.

Lovely Liz from Queens points out that Lex Maniac has covered very few foreign expressions, and she is right. By my count, this is the fifth — agita (probably Italian), glitch (Yiddish), karma (Sanskrit), and retro (French) being the others — out of about 425 so far. English has been in the business recently of bombarding the global village with new expressions, but we are returning a favor, having absorbed more than our share from other languages.


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