Sat 28 Sep 2013 13.00
By Kory Stamper. Kory Stampers is a lexicographer and associate editor at Merriam-Webster. She has written for the Chicago Tribune and blogs at harm•less drudg•ery
Diplomacy is often the art of deft circumlocution and constructive ambiguity. So how we do know when an entente is cordiale?
On Tuesday, President Obama gave his address to the UN general assembly, touching on Arab-Israeli peace, the crisis in Syria, the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the need to stand together as an international community. It followed on the heels of the address given by Hassan Rouhani, the new president of Iran. Much has been said about both speeches and almost all commentary boils down to this: diplomats never speak plainly, so what exactly did each president mean?
Complaints about the opacity of diplomatic language predate the UN. « What a pity it is that diplomatic language, or lingo, is always, to say the least, so utterly unintelligible », an unnamed writer for the New York Times bemoaned in 1863. Famous French diplomat Charles de Talleyrand-Périgord is said to have put it this way:
A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe’, a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no’, and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat.
Talleyrand (or someone putting words in Talleyrand’s mouth) speaks the truth: the language of diplomacy is shaded in euphemism and hint. The Egyptian regime change that occurred in July was emphatically not a military coup, according to the Obama administration. Calling it a « military coup » would restrict US aid to Egypt and therefore be a diplomatic disaster; but abandoning the democratically elected head of an allied government is also a diplomatic disaster. How does one navigate this awkwardness? An unnamed senior Obama administration official charted the course:
We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say.
President Obama massaged the message a bit more this week at the UN:
Morsi was democratically elected, but proved unwilling or unable to govern in a way that was fully inclusive.
Talleyrand would approve.
The US is a comparative newbie on the diplomacy scene. For centuries, diplomacy has been the province of the French. France, or some iteration of it, has been a world power for almost a millennium, and French was both a courtly language as well as an international lingua franca. And it shows in the language of diplomacy; not only is modern French an official language of the UN, but French and its ancestors have given us the vocabulary of diplomacy.
As far back as the ninth century, Britain had dealings with Norman princes and kings, but in the 11th century most of Britain also became French. William II of Normandy conquered the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings, and all subsequent English kings were Frenchmen and subjects of France – even the famous Richard the Lionheart, who only spoke French dialects and spent most of his regency in the Duchy of Aquitaine. In the years after the Battle of Hastings, England became a linguistic mishmash: the aristocracy spoke various dialects of French; the average person on the street spoke only Anglo-Saxon; and official records were generally kept in Latin.
It was the Norman middle management, essentially, who bridged the linguistic divide. They developed their own lingua franca, a short-lived language that was based on Norman French and used in lesser official documents, in the lower courts, and anywhere where French gentry mixed with upwardly mobile Anglo-Saxons. This language, called Anglo-French or Anglo-Norman and used as a language of cultural negotiation, gave English many words having to do with administration and diplomacy: « treaty », « ratify », « ally » and its relative, « allegiance », « ambassador », and « broker » (as in, « peace brokers ») all derive from Anglo-French.
The influence of French words in diplomacy waned slightly in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the 19th century brought a new influx of Francophonic words into the English diplomatic vernacular, as the upstart colonies in America declared independence and signed a treaty of alliance with France. France’s own attempts at diplomatie (the root of our modern English word diplomacy) with its populace and with other nations failed, and the America-France-Britain situation became the focus of politicians for decades after. Francophone political words poured into English, including « federalize », « secretariat », « insurgency », and – tellingly – « bureaucracy ».
Though in a different register, politicians have employed less-than-straightforward language since the dawn of recorded time. In 46 BC, Cicero noted that:
Rhetoricians are permitted to lie about historical matters so they can speak more nimbly.
The politicians of the new United States took to this habit like ducks to water. George Washington wrote to Virginia’s acting governor in 1758, trying to convince him to establish trade with the local Native American tribes for the good of « firm and lasting peace ». Also in 1758, James Madison noted that rulers who overstepped the rights of individuals « exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are tyrants ». « Tyrant » was used three times in Obama’s address to the UN on Tuesday, and his initial sentiment harkens back to Madison:
For most of recorded history, individual aspirations were subject to the whims of tyrants and empires.
President Obama finished his speech by saying:
We are ready to meet tomorrow’s challenges with you – firm in the belief that all men and women are, in fact, created equal, each individual possessed with a dignity that cannot be denied.
That’s a paraphrase of the famous passage from the Declaration of Independence. Mark Lyall Grant, British ambassador to the UN and skilful diplomat that is he, didn’t bat an eyelid.