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June 26, 2016

President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech


One of the famous quotations associated with today’s date is a line President John F. Kennedy spoke in German on June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Kennedy used the line twice that day in a historic speech in West Berlin, which was then separated from communist-controlled East Berlin by the Berlin Wall.

His intention was to express his solidarity with the people there, by symbolically calling himself a citizen of Berlin. And, the straight literal translation of “Ich bin ein Berliner” is indeed “I am a Berliner.”

However, there’s a long-running debate over whether Kennedy’s grammar was a little off.

His use of “ein” is the issue.

Ein” does means “a” in English. But Germans use the word “Berliner” without “ein” to mean “a citizen of Berlin.” They say “Ich bin Berliner” when they want to say the English equivalent of “I am a Berliner.”

The term “ein Berliner” — when used as a noun — refers to a a jelly-filled, doughnut-like pastry Germans call “ein Pfannkuchen Berliner” or “ein Berliner” for short.

For this reason, Kennedy’s line “Ich bin ein Berliner” has generated both amusement and heated discussion over the years.

Some observers say that what Kennedy said in German was essentially “I am a jelly-filled doughnut.” Thus, they find the line laughable.

It has also been suggested that West Germans laughed at Kennedy when he said it.

Other people claim the use of “ein Berliner” is grammatically correct for someone who isn’t really a citizen of Berlin. They say the doughnut theory is an urban legend.

I’m not fluent in German. But a close friend of mine, Matt Eckstein, grew up in West Germany and was there in 1963.

Matt explained to me that, technically, Kennedy’s grammar was non-standard and could be interpreted as a reference to the pastry.

What Kennedy should have said, to say it like a German, is “Ich bin Berliner.”

Similarly, my friend explained, if you wanted to say you are a citizen of Frankfurt, Germany, you would say “Ich bin Frankfurter,” rather than “Ich bin ein Frankfurter.” The latter could theoretically be interpreted to mean “I am a hot dog.”

However, my friend also noted that, much more importantly, the people of West Berlin knew what Kennedy actually meant when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

They knew he wasn’t talking about a jelly-filled doughnut. And, they found his words inspiring, not laughable.

You can see why by reading or watching a video of Kennedy’s speech.

It’s one of the most famous speeches in history. And, the crowd of more than 120,000 West Germans who were there on June 26, 1963 were cheering loudly — not laughing.

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John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech

Delivered in front of the Berlin Wall at Rudolph Wilde Platz in West Berlin
June 26, 1963

I am proud to come to this city as the guest of your distinguished Mayor, who has symbolized throughout the world the fighting spirit of West Berlin. And I am proud to visit the Federal Republic with your distinguished Chancellor who for so many years has committed Germany to democracy and freedom and progress, and to come here in the company of my fellow American, General Clay, who has been in this city during its great moments of crisis and will come again if ever needed.

John F Kennedy Ich Bin Ein Berliner speechTwo thousand years ago, the proudest boast was “Civis Romanus sum.” [“I am a Roman Citizen”] Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

I appreciate my interpreter translating my German.

There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin.

There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.

And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.

And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in — to prevent them from leaving us. I want to say on behalf of my countrymen who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride, that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope, and the determination of the city of West Berlin.

While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system — for all the world to see — we take no satisfaction in it; for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.

What is true of this city is true of Germany: Real, lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice. In 18 years of peace and good faith, this generation of Germans has earned the right to be free, including the right to unite their families and their nation in lasting peace, with good will to all people.

You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main. So let me ask you, as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.

All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.

And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

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Further reading and viewing…

June 20, 2016

“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”


The great American poet Robert Frost died in 1963, when he was 88 years old.

But he wrote his epitaph more than two decades before that, in a poem titled “The Lesson for Today.”

Frost first unveiled and recited the poem on June 20, 1941, at an event celebrating the anniversary of Harvard University’s Phi Beta Kappa Society.

In 1942, it was published in the book A Witness Tree, a collection of his recent poetry.

“The Lesson for Today” is not one of Frost’s more accessible poems.

It’s an imaginary discussion in verse with the Medieval scholar Alcuin of York and it includes a number of obscure literary and historical references. (The kinds of references people like Harvard Phi Beta Kappa graduates might know.)

But the last line of the last verse of the poem became one of Frost’s most famous:

      “I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori
       And were an epitaph to be my story,
       I’d have a short one ready for my own.
       I would have written of me on my stone:
       I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

It’s unclear whether Frost truly planned for that last line to be his real epitaph when he wrote it.

However, over the next two decades, it became increasingly associated with him.

Public awareness of the line was especially enhanced by its use in the title of a widely-seen documentary about Frost released shortly before his death — Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World.

When Frost died, his family had it inscribed on the headstone of his grave in Bennington, Vermont.

You can see it there above the name of his wife, Elinor, who died a quarter of a century before him in 1938.

For her epitaph, Frost had chosen the words “TOGETHER WING TO WING AND OAR TO OAR,” a romantic line from a poem he wrote in 1936 for his daughter’s wedding, titled “The Master Speed.”

Below his name on the headstone are the words that became a famous summation of Robert Frost’s own life: “I HAD A LOVER’S QUARREL WITH THE WORLD.”

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Related reading…

June 12, 2016

“A wife is to submit graciously to…her husband.”

Baptist Convention, AP story June 1998
In 1998, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention decided to update the provisions of the “Baptist Faith and Message,” a set of principles adopted in 1925 to provide guidance to the millions of members of Southern Baptist churches in the United States.

The text of the 1925 version primarily focused on fundamental aspects of the Southern Baptist faith, which are generally similar to other Christian Protestant faiths.

There was nothing in it about the roles of husbands and wives or the definition of marriage.

Back then, what was “normal” with respect to such things was taken for granted.

Seventy years later, in the late 1990s, things were different.

Women had increasingly become “liberated.”

Homosexuals were increasingly coming out of the closet.

There was even talk of (gasp!) gay marriage.

So, in June of 1998, at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the church leaders decided it was time to add a new section to the Baptist Faith and Message that addressed these “issues.”

The new section, titled “THE FAMILY,” was unanimously adopted by Convention members on June 9, 1998.

The first part had some language that took a clear shot at the newfangled notion of gay marriage.

“Marriage,” it opined, “is the uniting of one man and one woman.”

Of course, it wasn’t any big surprise that Southern Baptists opposed gay marriage (and homosexuality in general). They had already staked out that turf.

But there was some other language in the new section that caught the attention of reporters and quickly generated nationwide news coverage, a firestorm of criticism and many political cartoons and jokes.

Jeff Larson cartoon Wives submit graciouslyThe most controversial sentence was in the third paragraph, which says:

“A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.”

The doctrine is loosely based on a Biblical quote, Ephesians 5:22-33. Those verses, which don’t actually say wives should “graciously” be “servants” to their husbands, are given in the King James Version as follows:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.

For weeks, the Baptist Convention’s new rule about wives submitting graciously to their husbands was discussed, lambasted and lampooned by newspaper columnists, TV commentators, feminists and comedians.

Naturally, many women and social liberals attacked and mocked the idea that wives should graciously submit to their husbands, viewing it as incredibly outdated, wrongheaded and insulting to women.

And, of course, TV comics couldn’t resist commenting on the flap.

For example, Jay Leno quipped:

“The Southern Baptists issued a new ruling this week stating that a wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband. What if a husband wants to lead her and the family to Disneyland on Gay Day? What do you do then? What if your husband’s an idiot?”

Given Hillary Clinton’s imminent nomination as presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, it’s especially interesting to read one of the paragraphs in the Associated Press story about the flap over the submissive wives doctrine.

It notes that in 1998 the most visible member of the Southern Baptist Church was President Bill Clinton. The reporter who wrote the story, Kristen Moulton, was told by White House spokesman Mike McCurry that Bill Clinton “was aware of the convention's action and had joked about pointing it out to the first lady.”

The criticism and jokes had no effect on the policies of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The sentence about a wife submitting graciously to her husband remained and still exists in the current Baptist Faith and Message text.

At least, it still exists on paper and online.

I haven’t seen any studies on how strictly it’s adhered to in Southern Baptist households.

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Comments? Corrections? Post them on the Famous Quotations Facebook page.

Non-submissive related reading: books featuring quotations by women

May 28, 2016

“When you call me that, SMILE!”


When the groundbreaking Western novel The Virginian by Owen Wister was first published on May 28, 1902, no one could have known that it would become so famous — or that it would create basic formulas used ever since in Western novels, movies, radio and TV shows.

Stories about cowboys, Indians, outlaws, lawmen, gunfighters and settlers were common in the “penny dreadfuls” and “dime novels” published in the last half of the 19th century. They had also appeared in magazines such as Harper’s, which published Wister’s first Western short stories.

But literary scholars generally consider The Virginian to be the first “serious” Western novel and the prototype for the modern cowboy story genre.

Elements of the book are loosely based on the real “Johnson County War” of 1892, a bloody clash between big landowners and small ranchers in Wyoming.

The lead character of Wister's novel is a cowboy simply referred to as “the Virginian.” He's tough, honorable, taciturn and fast on the draw.

Many of the characters, settings and storylines in the book created iconic templates for Westerns that followed in print and on film.

The Virginian also gave us one of the iconic Western quotations: “When you call me that, SMILE!” (commonly misquoted as “Smile when you call me that!”)

This comes from a scene in which the Virginian is playing poker with the novel’s villain, a cowboy named Trampas. Here’s the part that includes the famous warning:

It was now the Virginian’s turn to bet, or leave the game, and he did not speak at once.

Therefore Trampas spoke. “Your bet, you son-of-a--.”

The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: “When you call me that, SMILE.” And he looked at Trampas across the table.

Yes, the voice was gentle. But in my ears it seemed as if somewhere the bell of death was ringing; and silence, like a stroke, fell on the large room.

The classic 1929 film based on Wister’s novel popularized a different version of the “smile” line.

In that film, Gary Cooper stars as the Virginian. His confrontation with Trampas, played by Walter Huston, occurs at the saloon’s bar instead of a poker table.

When Huston calls Cooper a "long-legged son-of-a-", Cooper cuts him off in mid-epithet and says: “If you wanna call me that, smile.”

This 1929 movie adaptation of The Virginian probably led to the “Smile when you call me that!” misquote.

Huston has a great response in the movie that’s not in the book.

“With a gun against my belly,” he says, “I always smile.”

Another classic film adaption of The Virginian was made in 1946. In that one, Joel McCrea plays the title character and the “smile” line he uses is the same as in the novel.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, “Smile when you call me that” and “Smile when you say that” were frequently used as joking comebacks.

I remember they were favorites of my father and his old Army buddies.

I don’t often hear people using those once-popular variations of the book and movie lines nowadays.

But whenever I do hear them, it does makes me smile.


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Related reading…

May 12, 2016

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”



Most people prefer not to think a lot about death.

But that subject has always loomed large in the mind and works of comedian, writer, actor and director Woody Allen, even when he was a young man.

One of Allen’s quips about death is a famous quote that’s cited in hundreds of books:

   “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

This line comes from an imaginary one-act play Allen wrote in his late thirties, titled Death.

It was one of two short plays included with a collection of his short stories in the book Without Feathers, which was published on May 12, 1975.

Death is said to be Allen’s humorous homage to Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 “Theatre of the Absurd” play The Killer.

Years later, he used Death as the basis for his 1992 film Shadows and Fog.

The title of Allen’s book Without Feathers is a satiric twist on words written by Emily Dickinson.

It’s a take-off on the first line of Dickinson’s poem “Hope,” published posthumously in 1891, five years after her death:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all.”

By titling his book Without Feathers, Allen was making a sardonic literary joke.

It encapsulated the contrast between his own fatalistic, dark-humored view of life and the more uplifting thoughts expressed by Dickinson in “Hope.”

Allen’s quote about death from Without Feathers has been immortalized by it’s inclusion in many books of famous quotations, as have a number of lines from his movies and his early stand-up comedy routines.

I don’t know if Woody Allen will end up being as popular after his death for as long as Emily Dickinson has been since hers in 1886.

But I suspect Woody’s reaction to that possibility might be another famous line he used back in the days when he did stand-up:

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

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Comments? Questions? Corrections? Post them on Famous Quotations Facebook page.

Related reading: books by and about Woody Allen…

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