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  Issue 155, page 4

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From Monika Schwarzbach:

Most Germans were really impressed by the words, they were spoken during a time where the cold war was feared to become hot, so hearing "I take pride in the words: 'ich bin ein Berliner'." from the leader of a powerful nation meant a lot and certainly made JFK very popular not only in Berlin but in Germany as well. West-Berlin was surrounded by the GDR - a country under soviet influence - and most people were scared more than a lot by the prospect of war.

Of course people did notice that double meaning of Berliner, it's a common pun in Germany. But people did knew as well how JFK intended the words. Jelly doughnuts are called Berliner everywhere in Germany, except in Berlin, where they are called pancakes (Pfannkuchen). <g> I can speak for myself, I live in Hamburg and I avoid "Ich bin ein Hamburger". <g> (It gives "bite me" a whole new meaning, though.) I guess people from Frankfurt and Vienna (Wien) have similar 'problems'.

From Felix Hoffman:

A Berliner (or Berliner Pfannkuchen in some parts) does indeed resemble a jelly doughnut without a hole.  Thus, 'I am a jelly doughnut' is undeniably a possible translation of the famous JFK quote.

However, this is obviously semantically strange as jelly doughnuts tend to be inanimate objects. Besides, the statement is very much at odds with what anyone would expect a world leader to say in public.  As we erudite people know, situational parameters are very important in conversation; they enable us to decode ambiguous or malformed utterances and rule out implausible interpretations.

Therefore, I agree with you that almost no one witnessing JFK's speech would have thought of the pun, but it was probably realized shortly afterwards. It certainly seems like something a real Berliner would come up with. 

From Friedrich Georgens:

Labskaus is a German Recipe, please find one here:, and if you have Google look up "Labskaus", you'll find this one and many more on ten pages.

By the way: A man saying "Ich bin ein Berliner" is understood to say "I am a male inhabitant of Berlin", similarly "Ich bin ein Hamburger" means "I am am male person living in Hamburg", "Ich bin ein Frankfurter" is a male person from Frankfurt. To understand "I am a jelly doughnut", "I am a flat piece of ground beef" and "I am a little sausage" means to misunderstand willingly, at least as far as native speakers of German are concerned. They ought to (and do) know, that " -er" as an affix to (place name) means "a male person living in (place name).

From Joshua Daniels:

On the Berliner thing.  It hinges on Kennedy's use of the indefinite article, and has its close parallel in American English. In German, speaking of oneself as a resident of a certain place or group, one says, "Ich bin Berliner," "Ich bin Dresdner," "Ich bin Student." or "Ich bin Polizei." While all of those identity-words are in fact singular nouns, they're being used in that case like adjectives, without change of form, and TAKE NO ARTICLE. There is a jelly doughnut called the Berliner, and when using the article, you're speaking of that doughnut, not regional identity. Same with Frankfurt or Thuringia; do you live there, or are you a sausage? If you live there, you don't use the article. If you say, "Ich bin ein Thueringer," or "Ich bin ein Frankfurter," you're a self-declared piece of pig guts stuffed with unnamable meat chunks. "Ich bin Thuringer," or "Ich bin Frankfurter," says you're from that region. 

In Texas, you'll find, at HEB Grocery Stores, a custard-filled doughnut called a Bismarck. In introducing yourself, were you named Bismarck, you would say, "I am Bismarck." If you say, "I am a Bismarck," you're saying just what Kennedy did: I am a doughnut. 

According to the article that we linked to last week, insertion of the article in that sentence is supposed to impart a metaphorical meaning to Berliner, as Kennedy was not a true Berliner.

From Steve Parkes:

I've always thought it a great pity that JFK never lived long enough to visit Frankfurt or Hamburg!

From Felix Hoffman

I would like to point out that the phrase hell bent for leather is used in the theme song from Rawhide (famously featured in the film Blues Brothers). This song was penned by Ned Washington and Dimitri Tiomkin and copyrighted in 1959, so the usage appears to be not so very recent. Maybe this is also where it first cropped up?

To those of us who deal with Old English (pre-1100) and proto-Indo-European (before recorded history), 1959 is EXTREMELY recent. 

From Peter Comrie:

FYI. The original phrase "all of a lather" didn't seem strong enough-though it does make a little more sense-and so this intensification of it was devised to give the expression a greater feeling of recklessness.

This is an interesting idea, but you have to be able to show the connection between the two phrases with examples from the written record in order to suggest that the relationship is anything other than a guess. 

From Stephen Bennett:

In response to Julio Comello's comments about "irony" in Issue 154, page 4 ("how no one knows what it means anymore... this is also a pet peeve of mine") and your earlier Curmudgeons' Corner (Issue 118, page 3) along the same lines, I think that this confusion is more prevalent in the US than here in the UK. Indeed, if you were to ask many British people what the differences were between them and Americans, a sense of irony would be fairly high up on the list. (That, and calling an aubergine an egg-plant, a courgette a zucchini, and spring onions scallions, etc. We really are two countries divided by a common language!)

Finally, I have to disagree with fellow Brit (I assume) Larry Trask of the University of Sussex (Issue 154, page 4) who seems to think that classical plurals, such as phenomena and bacteria, are a failure. While I concede that a few people do get these mixed up, I wouldn't go as far as to say that most people do, nor that there are "not so many high-school teachers who fully understand these forms themselves". However, I work in the computer industry, and I have to admit that I never talk about a datum (but I suppose one datum is pretty uncommon anyway!), nor do I discuss these matters on fora!

Any guesses on the plural of rhinoceros?

From Mark Lindsay:

"The attempt to introduce classical plurals into English is a failure. Only a handful of English-speakers ever master pairs like phenomenon / phenomena and bacterium / bacteria."

I just wanted to chime in on this discussion with an interesting tidbit.  While in most of the English language, classical plurals are misused, replaced, or ignored, in the "geek" world, the opposite is the case. There is a popular trend among computer geeks (like the popular weblog, Slashdot, for example) where classical plurals are introduced in words where they never existed before!

One example is when one talks about a physical computer (often called a "box"). The plural is "boxen", as in "My company has a bunch of Unix boxen". And speaking of Unix, this is another situation where a classical plural comes into play. It is often popular to pluralize Unix as "unices". This would be done when talking about the different kinds of unices (like Linux, BSD, etc.) instead of physical computer boxen. There are other examples, but you get the idea.

(Incidentally, another popular trend is using the more "logical" positioning of quotation marks (as I've done above) so that periods and commas don't creep in. If you tried to sneak a comma inside of quotation marks "illogically" when writing a program, the program would get mad at you! But I digress...)  Just thought you might find that interesting!

And so we did.

From Rashid Yaman:

Speaking of plural forms, I noticed this in the Guardian letters page recently:

It is reported that one Cambridge mathematician wrote to another suggesting they should meet to discuss "some conundra about pendula".

The other replied: "Surely we have better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than sitting on our ba doing sa."


From Richard R. Hershberger:

Your curmudgeon from issue 154 is dead wrong about the past tense of "to input". As Steven Pinker points out in "The Language Instinct", when a noun is converted into a verb the verb is regular. This is why when a baseball player hits a ball which is caught by an outfielder we say he "flied out" rather than he "flew out". The verb "to fly out" is derived from the noun "fly [ball]". The fact that "fly" is a verb in its own right, and that its conjugation is irregular, doesn't affect this.  

People who say "I inputted the data" are correctly deriving the verb from the older noun "input". They are then correctly conjugating it as a regular verb.  People who say "I input the data" are treating the verb as a modified form of "to put" and keeping the irregular conjugation. This is a false derivation.  The verb "input" clearly derives from the noun "input".

It is possible that the relationship between "to input" and "to put", while indirect, is obvious enough that the irregular conjugation will prevail. But this certainly has not happened yet, and its advocates have no moral high ground. They are the ones using a non-idiomatic, irregularly formed construction based on false etymology. To complain about the regular form is not merely pedantic, it is wrong. The curmudgeons ought to be complaining about people who ignorantly use "input" as the past tense. 

From Chandra McCann:

In last week's "Curmudgeon's Corner", you said, "Saying inputted is as wrong as saying putted. " I wonder, however, about the use of inflections with compound words. Isn't it generally the rule that once a root verb or noun has been added to, the new word follows the norm in its inflections, rather than maintaining the irregular inflections of the original word? For example, the plural of "overleaf" is "overleafs", not "overleaves".

As usual, you are doing a wonderful job, and your erudite 'zine continues to be a breath of fresh air every week (or so)!

Actually, though the venerable Fowler (arbiter of difficulties like this) seems to prefer input as the past tense, and as most dictionaries also list it as allowable, inputted is also considered correct (much to our chagrin!).  We rarely hear inputted, ourselves, but, what do we know?

From Louis Nettles:

You missed a chance to label this laughingstock as "Vending [One's] Spleen" rather than "Venting [One's] Spleen" 

You are right!  Good one, Louis!

From Cathy Kelty:

Hello, found your site and hope you might be able to help answer a question I've long had. It may not be an etymological question, actually, but if not perhaps you can point me in the right direction.  I grew up living in the San Francisco Bay Area. There, when we would give directions for driving on the freeways we would say "take 101 north" or "take 680 south".

Recently I moved to a resort area closer to Los Angeles, and we see many people from Southern California. When they talk of driving on freeways they say "Take THE 210" or "go south on THE 5". There is a slight difference in meaning and usage that I can't put my finger on. Clearly there is a regional difference going on, but why? And what is it? Thanks for any help you can give regarding this minor thing, that I've nevertheless always wondered about. 

We noticed that peculiarly Southern California usage, too.  It's the only place in the States that we've visited that employs that usage.  In Dallas, Texas, for example, one would say "Go south on 75" or "635" or even "LBJ" (the other name of 635 in Dallas).  Never would one hear "Go south on the 75".  The same is true in the Bay Area, as you say, which is where we live now.  However, one might hear, in, say, Houston, "Take the 610 loop".  Maybe "the 5" in L.A. is short for "the 5 freeway"?  Any SoCal natives want to comment?  Perhaps more importantly, do inhabitants of any other parts of the country (who are not from SoCal) use that SoCal convention?


Or read last week's issue to see what all of these people are talking about!

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Last Updated 06/22/02 05:45 PM