Errors and omissions: How a wrong translation became the great Berlin bake-off

Was Kennedy really such a doughnut? This week's paper is reviewed by our letters editor


To paraphrase the newspaper editor from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the error becomes correct, print the error.” That was what we did in a headline on a news page on Monday, reporting on a street festival in Berlin. The headline said: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Those words were uttered by John F Kennedy in a speech in Berlin in 1963. The US President wished to express Cold War solidarity with the beleaguered people of West Berlin, surrounded by the forces of communism. “I am a Berliner,” he declared.

Except that he didn’t. Giles Cooper writes in from north London to confirm what an old friend with a degree in German told me long ago. Kennedy, or his speech writer, got it wrong. “Ich bin ein Berliner” means “I am a doughnut” (that is, a particular kind of German doughnut known as a Berliner). The German for “I am a Berliner” (meaning a person from Berlin) has no indefinite article. Kennedy should have said, “Ich bin Berliner.” But everybody is familiar with the words he actually said – so for headline purposes “Ich bin ein Berliner” has become correct.

It is only fair to add that Wikipedia, in its most solemn American fact-checking mode, dismisses what it calls the “jelly doughnut misconception”, maintaining that what Kennedy said was correct all along. But why spoil a good story?


Creative thinking: Wednesday’s Diary had some fun with the opponents of gay marriage who insist upon respect for religious objections. Two of them, the Tory MP Edward Leigh and the Democratic Unionist William McCrea, seemed to suggest that this should extend even to creationist schoolteachers.

The diary asked: “Is it, in other words, the view of the Tory right and of Ulster Unionists that a science teacher should be allowed to teach that the world was made in seven days without being disciplined?”

Presumably not, for the Bible says that the world was made in six days. On the seventh day, the Creator rested.


Better than good: “There can’t be any better definition of political writing at its most excellent,” said a book review published last Saturday. What happened to “at its best”?

The word “excellent” has been devalued in recent years. Everything must be “excellent”, or it’s no good. Let us not forget that “excellent” means standing out from the rest. It follows that in any class of things, only a few can ever be excellent. And can anything be more or most excellent? I think not. Either it is excellent or it is not.


Homophone horror: “A memo details how Edward VIII approached his Scotland Yard bodyguard to ensure that discrete extra patrols were put in place,” said a news story on Thursday. That should be “discreet”. Both words come down from the Latin discernere – to tell apart. “Discrete” means separate; “discreet” means showing fine discernment – hence tactful and unobtrusive. Not many people seem to be able to discern the difference.

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