The World’s Alex Gallafent ponders whether the language of international diplomacy has sunk to the level of schoolyard insults.
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LISA MULLINS: As we heard, it’s coming down to trading insults between the US and North Korea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared the North Korean regime to little children. On North Koreans foreign ministry muted that Mrs. Clinton sometimes looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes like an old lady going shopping, not exactly diplomatic language there. But not exactly new either, as The World’s Alex Gallafent explains.
ALEX GALLAFENT: The North Korean statement about Hillary Clinton included this choice observation, “We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady, as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community.” Etiquette? In the international community? Come on! Let’s get real politic. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the stage is yours.
ALEX GALLAFENT: “The devil came here yesterday”, Chavez said, in a 2006 speech at the United Nations. President George W Bush had spoken a day earlier.
ALEX GALLAFENT: “It still smells of sulphur today”, he added. Soon after, Larry King on CNN, got a response from George Bush senior.
LARRY KING: Any thoughts on Venezuela’s President Chavez saying your son is the devil?
GEORGE BUSH SR: Well, I’m tempted to…
LARRY KING: Oh, go ahead.
GEORGE BUSH SR: You know, he’s an ass.
ALEX GALLAFENT: Fair enough, you might think, but hardly elevated diplomacy, even if being an ex-president gives you some latitude to say what you really think. The point about diplomacy is that you don’t always say what you really think. Insults ought to be thinly veiled and so on. Winston Churchill reportedly described a fellow politician as a modest man who has much to be modest about. In another remark attributed to him, Churchill described French leader Charles De Gaulle as looking like a female llama who has been surprised in the bath. Good clean fun. It gets a lot dirtier these days. Take the Russians and the Georgians. For connoisseurs, they’re international mudslingers without equal. Russian president Dmitri Medvedev once called his Georgian counterpart a political corpse. But that was nothing.
ALEX GALLAFENT: “On the Russian market, sorry to use this word, even excrement will sell.” So said Georgia’s defense minister in 2006, after Russia imposed restrictions on the sale of Georgian wine. The reply from a Russian lawmaker to the entire people of the former Soviet republic was earthy, full-bodied, ripe.
ALEX GALLAFENT: “You have lost all your decency. Your minister says that it’s possible to sell anything made from excrement to Russians. What kind of attitude is that? Drink and eat your own excrement.” Goodness me. It’s no wonder that some politicians just decide they’ve had enough. In 1993 the then-leader of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, threatened to resign saying he was tired of being insulted.
ALEX GALLAFENT: “It is all over”, he declared. “My patience has limits. I’m not going to lick up what I have spat out. And I am not going to tolerate insults any more.” There, there Eduard, it needn’t get that bad, you just need an efficient forum for your insult hurling. Somewhere like the British parliament. This is from 1986, it’s a debate about intelligence surrounding an American raid on Libya. On one side opposition leader Neil Kinnock, on the other, and speaking first, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
MARGARET THATCHER: Mr. Speaker, what the Honorable Gentleman is seeking to do is to help the terrorists by knowing exactly what answer we should give to a request.
NEIL KINNOCK: That, Mr. Speaker, is utterly unjustified, a vile insult that is not even acceptable in the bitterest of exchanges in this place.
MARGARET THATCHER: If you tell the terrorist precisely what you are or are not going to do, that is a way of helping him. I did not seek to impute anything personal to the right honorable gentleman, and if that was the effect of what I said, then I gladly withdraw it.
ALEX GALLAFENT: See? Insult, response, conclusion. All done. By the way, Thatcher herself was once called “an old bag” by the speaker of the Russian parliament. And like Hillary Clinton today, it’s unlikely she gave it a second thought. For The World, I’m Alex Gallafent.
LISA MULLINS: We’ve got lots more stories on language, check out our weekly podcast it’s called The World in Words. This week, the story of a linguist who sold nouns and adjectives to a shoe company. To listen, go to the-world-dot-org-slash-language.
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