Now that I have been back in the U.S. for several weeks, after a month of travel in Europe, particular experiences stand out. For example, as we cruised the River Elbe from Prague to Berlin, our riverboat guide, Stephanie — a tall, young, red-headed Germanic woman – got a good laugh when she informed us that President Kennedy, in his famous speech at the Berlin Wall, had actually declared himself to be a donut. She explained that a Berliner is a popular German pastry, essentially a jelly donut, thus when Kennedy proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner”, he was actually saying “I am a jelly donut.”
And since we are currently absorbed in remembering JFK as we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination, this matter of the jelly donut is timely and thought-provoking.
Anyway, Snopes.com, which is a useful touchstone for fact-checking stuff that floats through the internet (much of which turns out to be drek), lightens the stigma of Kennedy’s potentially silly and embarrassing words. Yes, “Ich bin ein Berliner” could be taken to mean “I am a jelly donut” – it would be a correct literal meaning – but it would be like hearing someone say “I am a New Yorker” and taking this to mean they are a glossy magazine of the same name. We could focus on the magazine interpretation if we were being silly, or perhaps stupid. But we would more likely understand that the person meant they were from New York.
Contemporary language studies inevitably lead back to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and we can find comfort here in Meister Ludwig’s definition of meaning, i.e. “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” So we should be able to tell from the context what JFK meant.
Irony and humor often depend on twisting words into misrepresentation or confusion of meaning — “Haha did he really say he was a jelly donut…?” One of my favorite twisters is “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” Or, if you are old enough to know who Groucho Marx was (hint: he did not write Das Kapital), you might remember him saying “While in Africa, I shot an elephant in my pajamas — how an elephant got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
[BTW, the historic origins of Stephanie’s red-headed gene pool might make a good future blog topic. Stay tuned.]