Did JFK Really Call Himself A Doughnut In German? Posted by Constanze 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?
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?
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:
To all of our American readers, you could say: Ich bin Amerikaner (male) or Ich bin Amerikanerin (female)!
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