Wednesday, July 09, 2008


Ich bin ein Boeotier

I used to love the story that President John Kennedy, when he said "Ich bin ein Berliner," uttered the equivalent of "I am a jelly donut." Unfortunately, it turns out that his German was correct in every way, and any German speaker hearing him would have understood him to mean "I am a Berliner." I have not seen Jurgen Eichhoff, "'Ich bin ein Berliner': A History and Linguistic Clarification," Monatshefte für den deutschen Unterricht, deutsche Sprache und Kultur 85 (1993) 71–80, who vindicated Kennedy in this matter.

I thought of President Kennedy and this story when I read the following fragment from Mnesimachus' Busiris (tr. J.M. Edmonds):
A. I'm a Boeotian and I act as such, / Speaking but little — B. Good! A. And eating much.

A. εἰμι γὰρ Βοιώτιος / ὀλίγα μὲν λαλῶν — (B. δίκαια ταῦτα.) A. πολλὰ δ' ἐσθίων.

λαλῶν: ἄλλων codd.
There is independent evidence to corroborate both of these characteristics of the Boeotians. Plato, Symposium 182 b, says that the Boeotians are unskilled in speaking (μὴ σοφοὶ λέγειν), and Alcibiades (see Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades 2.5), says that the sons of the Thebans don't know how to converse (διαλέγεσθαι γὰρ οὐκ ἴσασιν). The fragment from Mnesimachus' Busiris comes from Athenaeus, who discusses the gluttony of the Boeotians at length in his Deipnosophistae (10.417 b - 418 b). I share both of these characteristics, taciturnity and voracity, and so imitating President Kennedy I say, "Ich bin ein Boeotier."

As a minimal conversationalist, I am on a par with Dr. John Taylor, of whom Dr. Johnson told the following anecdote (April 25, 1778, reported by James Boswell):
Demosthenes Taylor, as he was called, (that is, the Editor of Demosthenes) was the most silent man, the merest statue of a man that I have ever seen. I once dined in company with him, and all he said during the whole time was no more than Richard. How a man should say only Richard, it is not easy to imagine. But it was thus: Dr. Douglas was talking of Dr. Zachary Grey, and ascribing to him something that was written by Dr. Richard Grey. So, to correct him, Taylor said, (imitating his affected sententious emphasis and nod,) "RICHARD."
Thomas De Quincey went through an aphasic phase. In Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, ed. David Wright (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 118, he said of himself, "For the first two years of my residence at Oxford, I compute that I did not utter one hundred words." I once computed that actor Sylvester Stallone did not utter one hundred words, including grunts, in his first Rambo movie. De Quincey expanded on his ailment (id. p. 124):
In early youth I labored under a peculiar embarrassment and penury of words, when I sought to convey my thoughts adequately upon interesting subjects: neither was it words only that I wanted; but I could not unravel, I could not even make perfectly conscious to myself, or properly arrange the subsidiary thoughts into which one leading thought often radiates; or, at least, I could not do this with anything like the rapidity requisite for conversation. I laboured like a Sibyl instinct with the burden of prophetic wo, as often as I found myself dealing with any topic in which the understanding combined with deep feelings to suggest mixed and tangled thoughts: and thus partly — partly also from my invincible habit of reverie — at that era of my life, I had a most distinguished talent 'pour le silence.'
De Quincey outgrew his taciturn ways, however, and became a much sought after conversationalist. Jane Carlyle said of De Quincey, "What wouldn't one give to have him in a Box, and take him out to talk!"

I've never outgrown my shyness and taciturnity. An embarrassing but accurate description of me at most social gatherings can be found in Rabelais, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, I, 16 (tr. J.M. Cohen): "It was no more possible to draw a word from him than a fart from a dead donkey."

On the other hand, when I am forced to attend some social gathering, you can usually find me, like the ancient Boeotians, stuffing myself with food. I am a member not only of the Theban League, but also of the Panzeatic League, and my escutcheon is:

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