Words: Diplomacy

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The resolution of that unpleasant dust-up with Iraq is agreed to have been a triumph for diplomacy. But throughout its history the word has tended to have a bad press. "Conduct which is wily and subtle" declared the Encyclopedia Britannica in its 1877 edition, "without being directly false or fraudulent, is styled 'diplomatic'". Its 1911 edition, weighing its words, said that "what we know of diplomacy was long regarded... partly as a kind of activity morally somewhat suspect". Yet it had begun innocently enough. The Greek diploma had meant "a doubling", the verb diploein meant "to fold", and a diploma was a piece of folded paper, folded presumably to keep its contents from the casual eyes (assuming he was literate) of a messenger.

So a diploma came to be any official document; the universities grabbed it in the 17th century for the bits of paper they handed out to successful students. Diplomacy wasn't coined till later. Its first mention in the Oxford Dictionary is dated 1796. This was Edmund Burke, writing about what he called "the double diplomacy of France". Technically the word meant simply what the dictionary calls "the management of international relations by negotiation". But that "double" has an edge to it that has nothing to do with the innocent diploein of the ancient Greeks. Nor was Burke doing his francophobe act, for later he refers to "all our mendicant diplomacy", merely regretting its necessity in the national interest.

Then there was Disraeli, writing of "treachery and cowardice, doled out with diplomatic politesse".

It's not surprising that when we talk about a less than honest answer (perhaps to questions like "Do you like my hat?") we describe it as "a diplomatic reply".

All rather unfair to a useful and honourable profession, but there you are.