Mobile menu

Safire on Language
Thread poster: Jacek Krankowski
Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
+ ...
Nov 17, 2002

William Safire\'s column has appeared in the New York Times Magazine since 1979. To view today\'s article go to and click on \"On Language\" on your left hand side (you will need to register):




When President Vicente Fox of Mexico recently hinted that he would not support the U.S. resolution threatening Iraq in the United Nations, The Wall Street Journal warned that it \'\'will only convince more Republicans that our neighbors to the south are more useful as political piñatas than as partners.\'\'

A month before, the Toronto Globe and Mail sportswriter John Heinzl referred to \'\'the most widely publicized hockey disagreement since Marty McSorley mistook Donald Brashear\'s head for a piñata. . . . \'\'

At the same time, The New York Sun carried a front-page headline using the Spanish word: \'\'Hatch Says Democrats Are Making a Piñata of Estrada.\'\' This had to do with the Senate Judiciary Committee\'s questioning (characterized by G.O.P. senators as a \'\'grilling\'\') of Miguel Estrada, President Bush\'s nominee for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Before it became a metaphor for \'\'an object or person to be smashed,\'\' a piñata was \'\'a gaily decorated pottery jar hung from the ceiling, containing candies and toys for children, to be opened by striking with a stick, while blindfolded, during Latin American festivities like birthday parties or Christmas celebrations.\'\' (...)

Another, less familiar Spanish word was used by Senator Orrin Hatch in calling attention to his support for the first Hispanic-American nominated to the court that has been a steppingstone to the Supreme Court. \'\'Here is a Spanish word,\'\' he said as an aide placed a large sign on an easel in front of cameras in the hearing room. The sign featured the word confabular and one of its meanings: \'\'when two or more persons come together secretly to invent falsehoods about another.\'\'

Spanish dictionaries have a range of definitions for that verb, from an innocuous \'\'to converse, discuss\'\' to a sinister \'\'to plot, scheme or conspire.\'\' The English verb confabulate is rooted in the Latin fabula, \'\'story,\'\' also the root of fable, fabulous and fabricate. In psychiatry, confabulate is defined in the O.E.D. as \'\'to fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory.\'\' I would define the noun, confabulation, as \'\'a jocular description of a pretentious talkfest.\'\'

Because this item began with a quoted editorial slap at an ally, let me pass along a foreign word on that subject e-mailed from somewhere in Spooksville by Mark Lowenthal: \'\'One of my favorite German words is Bündnisfähigkeit, or \'the state of being a good ally.\' \'\'

This nuanced compound noun belongs in every diplomat\'s lexicon, along with Weltanschauung (\'\'worldview\'\'), Fingerspitzengefühl (\'\'sandpapered-fingertip sensitivity\'\') and Schadenfreude (\'\'guilty pleasure in seeing an ally embarrassed\'\').

Bündnis means \'\'alliance, compact, league\'\'; the adjective fähig means \'\'capable of doing\'\'; and the addition of keit gives us the compound noun Bündnisfähigkeit, \'\'the capability of being an ally.\'\' In The Mershon International Studies Review, Michael Sturmer was quoted as writing in 1994 that \'\'for Germany, the ability to act (Handlungsfähigkeit) is, first and foremost, synonymous with its ability to be a reliable Western ally (westliche Bündnisfähigkeit).\'\'

Of course, if any nation is afflicted with the opposite -- Unbündnisfähigkeit -- it can be expected to be treated like a piñata at the next international confabulation. (...)


You can also browse in the NYT archive, but they will charge you for any back copy of Safire\'s column.

[ This Message was edited by: on 2002-11-17 23:03 ]

Direct link Reply with quote
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:05
English to German
+ ...
Dear Jacek Nov 18, 2002

Thanks for this article but I have to correct the author: the opposite of \"Bündnisfähigkeit\" would be \"Bündnisunfähigkeit\". Hmm, I wonder why they come up with it at this particular time. I suggest US diplomats add a few more German words to their vocabulary, like \"Denkfähigkeit, Denkunfähigkeit, Selbstständigkeit, Unselbstständigkeit, Abhängigkeit, Unabhängigkeit, Gehorsam, Ungehorsam\" and the most important pair, \"Mensch, Unmensch\".

Direct link Reply with quote

Endre Both  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:05
Member (2002)
English to German
Thanks Jacek, Nov 18, 2002

...and also Olaf .

Direct link Reply with quote

To report site rules violations or get help, contact a site moderator:

Moderator(s) of this forum
Maria Castro[Call to this topic]

You can also contact site staff by submitting a support request »

Safire on Language

Advanced search

Translation news

Manage your TMs and Terms ... and boost your translation business

Are you ready for something fresh in the industry? TM-Town is a unique new site for you -- the freelance translator -- to store, manage and share translation memories (TMs) and glossaries...and potentially meet new clients on the basis of your prior work.

More info »
Protemos translation business management system
Create your account in minutes, and start working! 3-month trial for agencies, and free for freelancers!

The system lets you keep client/vendor database, with contacts and rates, manage projects and assign jobs to vendors, issue invoices, track payments, store and manage project files, generate business reports on turnover profit per client/manager etc.

More info »

All of
  • All of
  • Term search
  • Jobs