Date: Sat, 29 Nov 1997 11:48:56 -0500

From: Gregory {Greg} Downing downingg[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]IS2.NYU.EDU

Subject: V-gesture and "Ich bin ein Berliner"

At 06:59 PM 11/29/97 +1100, you (pbryant[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] wrote:

I vaguely remember reading somewhere that when Churchill created the

V-for-victory sign, one of his staff had to take him aside and explain

to him that he'd better do it with his palm turned outwards, but this

might be apocryphal, dreamt up by an Australian. Is it only in Australia

that the sign with the palm turned inward is offensive?

No -- when I was in England (London and suburbs) in high school in the

1970s, the gesture done with the index and middle fingers in a V shape with

the back of the hand facing forward (away from the gesturer) meant stick it

up your ---, or "up yours". It was extremely common (amybe the most common

of all obscene gestures) from middle-class downwards, among the younger set

(10s/20s/30s), though it may well have been around a very long time and

older people were simply not willing to use such a graphic gesture as openly

as people my age obviously were.

On Berliner, the proper German way to say what JFK meant, as someone pointed

out but someone else did not understand, would be "Ich bin Berliner" (I am

[a] Berliner). "Ich bi ein Berliner" is how an American using English

assumptions would wrongly put it, which would literally mean (absent

context) "I am a/one jelly-donut." But everyone knew JFK didn't speak proper

German, was likely to make typical American mistakes in speaking it, and had

no reason to claim status as a pastry. They understood exactly what his

meaning was, just as a native speaker of English would understand an ESL

speaker making a slip, when the sense was clear from context. Context is a

big issue in understanding language -- that's no surprise to anyone here. It

would require a pretty unusual context for a German speaker really to

understand "Ich bin ein Berliner" as a serious avowal of pastryhood. Some

kind of figurative use, poetry or literature maybe. Maybe: Gregor awoke one

morning, und er war ein Berliner.

Greg Downing/NYU, at greg.downing[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] or downingg[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]