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AUGUST 16, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 6

You Say Tom-ay-to, I Say Eggplant
Let's hear it for semantics, which allow nations to change their minds without losing face
By SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY

I was wondering how Bill Clinton's peacemaking in Kashmir would be presented to the Indian public. The normal term would have been "mediation," except that the word makes New Delhi see red. India insists that its dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir is strictly a bilateral matter with no scope for a mediator--a stand that prompted a journalist to ask Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee why, then, was he sending envoys all over the world.

Now, thanks to Karl Inderfurth, a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, New Delhi can claim to have achieved peace with honor. Far from being a meddling mediator, Clinton was only a friendly "facilitator." What are diplomats for, one might ask, if not to pour soothing semantic oil on troubled political waters? History records that after a London newspaper had given grave offense to Siam's King Rama V by describing him as "a spare man," it fell to the British ambassador to rescue Anglo-Thai relations from serious rupture by proposing a toast in which he roundly denounced the very notion of the world ever being able to spare so valuable a monarch.

Talleyrand, the astute 19th century French diplomat, knew what he was talking about when he said that speech is given to man to conceal his thoughts. Few can match Emperor Hirohito's "the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage" for delicate understatement. But it has always been axiomatic that when an Indian official says a subordinate "may" do something, he means "shall." Phrases like "a full and frank exchange of views" to indicate total disagreement or "flexibility" for a policy about-face underline Talleyrand's point. Effective concealment calls for a special knack with words that Andrei Gromyko, the longtime Soviet Foreign Minister, mastered better than most. Apart from the notorious "nyet" with which he vetoed one United Nations Security Council resolution after another, his famous taciturnity was demonstrated when, asked if he had enjoyed his breakfast, Gromyko replied, "Perhaps." Perhaps he had read Calvin Coolidge's observation that, "If you don't say anything, you won't be called on to repeat it."

Someone once said that he who weighs his words also weighs his acts, an aphorism that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office seemed determined to live up to, judging by its spokesman's meticulousness at the daily briefings for journalists. Had the Argentine ambassador made a representation, someone asked one morning when the Falklands controversy was beginning to simmer. No, was the spokesman's firm reply. But he had called at the FCO? Yes, tersely. And he hadn't made a representation? No again. Then why the visit? To represent his government's position, was the glib explanation. The spokesman's tone implied that if you didn't know the difference between making a representation and representing a position you had no business writing about the arcana of global relations.

Not all languages can cope with these subtleties, as the Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien noted when the U.N.'s floundering French interpreter translated a British delegate's carefully nuanced comment on "self-determination" and "independence" for Cyprus into something like: "When Her Majesty's Government talks about 'independence,' it clearly means 'independence' and not 'independence.'" Even better was Anthony Eden's famous claim after invading Egypt in 1956 that, far from being at "war," Britain and Egypt were only "in a state of armed conflict."

Some of this skill at splitting terminological hairs may have rubbed off on Indians, accounting for a former cabinet minister's boast that India had no enemies, only "countries that were adversely interested." But verbal deftness comes naturally to a people who have banished famine (there's now only "scarcity"), transformed the poor into the "weaker sections," and upgraded Hinduism's lowest, untouchable castes to "Harijan," or children of god.

A proposal by Lord Wavell, India's penultimate viceroy, to encourage greater verbal precision by publishing a monthly journal of over-used or misused words failed to arrest this semantic revolution. Priding themselves like Humpty Dumpty on using a word to mean exactly what they chose, India's politicians succeeded with terminology where they had failed with action. But their ingenuity now faces a major challenge. Every Indian child knows that the Foreign Hand responsible for whatever goes wrong in the country belongs to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The government must now convince them that the hand can also be raised in help: mediation is for the adversely interested, facilitation for friends.

This edition's table of contents

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