The arcane language of diplomacy…. and what it actually means

“I have always been fond of the West African proverb ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far’,” said Theodore Roosevelt, then the US Vice President (under William McKinley), in a letter to a political associate Henry W Sprague Jan 26, 1900. Roosevelt soon used the phrase publicly a short time later and it has since entered the language as an apt description of power projection foreign policy he carried out as president – one which began the transformation of his nation to a global power, and then soon, a superpower.

But let all that be – I am not concerned with the political aspect at this point in time, but the linguistic aspects. Lets concentrate on the proverb he cited…. It can serve as the best definition for the practice of diplomacy, the language of which is noted for its soft words even refusal or a threat is issued – as you will soon see.

The problem unfortunately lies with that section of the people who confuse diplomacy with duplicity (rather than tact, reserve and restraint) and do not appreciate that being offensive (in all senses of the word) is not synonymous with being effective. But then it is my considered belief that the language of restraint is imbued with a certain dignity, which unfortunatey not all can aspire too…..

However, as I said the problem of this section of people (over 90 percent) is lack of knowledge of what typical diplomatic language actually means – the way it stretches the linguistic and semantic resources of the English language to carry the heaviest burden it can reasonably be expected to bear. The question of employing untruths never enters the picture and it is only that innovative usages of common words are made. Let me explain with some examples….. I know its not advisable to give away trade secrets but in this case, it may be required in the larger interest.

So here are some examples of words and phrases used in diplomatic discourse (in bold), while the actual meaning is given in italics.

“We had a candid dialogue” : “We talked but our opinions diverged and we were unable to communicate.”

“We exchanged views”“Each party expressed its own views which the others heard very patiently but no consensus was reached.”

“We had a thorough exchange of views” :  “We talked and each side expressed their own views. Leave alone reaching an agreement, we actually fought with each other (verbally, we mean, we are diplomats after all).”

“We came to have a better understanding of each other” :  “We talked – well, we had a sucession of monologues, and at the end, both of us realised that there are huge differences in opinions.”

“The dialogue is beneficial”  : “We both are still a long way off from the goal of an agreement – any agreement – at the moment, but being able to sit down and talk things over is already an achievement.”

“We had a frank discussion” : “We aired our disagreements openly.”

“The discussion was very frank” : “We aired our disagreements openly and the discussion grew quite heated.”

“The discussion was very frank, bordering on direct” : “We aired our disagreements openly and the discussion grew quite heated. It is hoped the cleaners can clean up the blood by the morning.”

To be continued…….


One response to this post.

  1. […] I had acquainted you with some examples of what the otherwise innocous-sounding statements of diplomats do actually mean. You can read it here:… […]


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