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Did JFK Really Call Himself A Doughnut In German? Posted by on Feb 8, 2019 in History, Language

It happened way back in 1963, but still the question comes up: Did John F. Kennedy really call himself a doughnut during his famous speech in West Berlin?

President Kennedy. Picture via Pixabay.

At the end of a speech in which the president showed solidarity with the citizens of West Berlin following the erection of the Berlin Wall, Kennedy said the following sentence:

Ich bin ein Berliner.

His intention in saying this sentence – ‘I am a Berliner’ – was to tell the citizens that he was ‘one of them’, that he ‘stood with them’.

However, some time after the speech was made, the media began saying that Kennedy had inadvertently called himself a jelly-filled doughnut. This became a long-running joke that is well-known today, despite the fact that many claim he didn’t say the German incorrectly at all.

Why a doughnut?

A Berliner. Image via Pixabay.

In parts of Germany, the word for a jelly-filled doughnut is a Berliner (sometimes also called a Berliner Pfannkuchen). This is where the joke came from.

However, a doughnut is not known as a ‘Berliner’ in Berlin itself. There, it is more commonly referred to as a Pfannkuchen (which is, confusingly, also the German word for pancake). So there is speculation as to whether Berlin residents would have even found Kennedy’s sentence funny, as the media claimed they did.


The reason the sentence Ich bin ein Berliner is disputed is because of the word ein. Linguists say it makes more sense to take out the ein and just say Ich bin Berliner if you want to call yourself a citizen of Berlin. Saying this, without the ein, there is no chance of you being confused for a jelly doughnut.

However, with his speech, Kennedy didn’t want to call himself a citizen of Berlin – because he wasn’t one! He didn’t grow up or live there, so it would have sounded silly to say he was. He simply wanted to state that he was ‘one of them’ in a figurative sense. So in that sense, what the president said – Ich bin ein Berliner – was correct for this context, even if it does also mean ‘I am a jelly doughnut’ (and besides, Kennedy had an experienced German translator and interpreter write the line for him, so he would have known this).

Just like the Berliner, there are other German/Austrian city names that are also the names of food. For instance:

Hamburg = Hamburger (burger)

Frankfurt = Frankfurter (sausage)

Wien (Vienna) = Wiener (sausage)

So residents from Hamburg, for example, would say ‘Ich bin Hamburger’. 

A German pastry I grew up with and loved was the Amerikaner, a delicious, round, cake-like pastry with a frosted top:

The Amerikaner – nestled underneath a doughnut! Image via Pixabay.

To all of our American readers, you could say: Ich bin Amerikaner (male) or Ich bin Amerikanerin (female)!

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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and love writing about German language and culture. I also work as a group fitness instructor.


  1. Jenna Askins, Ohio, USA:

    Dear Constanze, you have taught me something today! I am familiar with JFK’s speech in W. Berlin, but have never heard it explained the way you explained it, and it makes perfect sense! I have studied German and lived in Germany, and enjoy learning history — you ticked all the boxes! Thank you!

    • Constanze:

      @Jenna Askins, Ohio, USA Thanks Jenna, I’m glad you enjoyed the post and learnt something from it! 🙂

  2. Charles weager:

    When he said this I was at a school that had the same name as the local bakery and we were known as doughnuts!

    • Constanze:

      @Charles weager Oh how lovely! There are worse things to be called. 😉