« Today's spam email header that's least likely to pique my further interest | Main | The world will little note, nor long remember, the angle of Obama's bow from the waist to King Abdullah; but ... »

Monday, April 06, 2009

"I don’t know what the term is in Austrian"

One might think a degree in political science (with a specialization in international relations) from Columbia University, followed by service as chair of the European Affairs subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, might have given Barack Obama some clue as to the language spoken by the friendly people of Austria. But if so, one would then be disappointed (emphasis added):

At a news conference afterward, Obama said his debut on the international stage had convinced him that “political interaction in Europe is not that different from the United States Senate,” where he served before entering the White House.

“There’s a lot of — I don’t know what the term is in Austrian — wheeling and dealing, and people are pursuing their interests, and everybody has their own particular issues and their own particular politics,” he said in response to an Austrian reporter’s question.

Actually, I believe that the word "idiot" has the same meaning in both English and Austrian German.


But seriously, folks. Do I believe that Barack Obama genuinely doesn't know that they speak German in Austria, and that he'd make this same mistake in an unstressed setting with a moment to reflect upon it? No, I don't believe that. This was a silly and innocent mistake — like the "57 states" comment during the campaign — and any human being, no matter how well educated and genuinely knowledgeable, will be caught making this sort of mistake from time to time if subjected to constant and intense scrutiny.

I grew sick to death of those who seized upon every verbal misstep of George W. Bush's or Sarah Palin's and treated those missteps as if they were meaningful, as if they were worthy of anything more than mild mockery for purposes of amusement. They weren't. This isn't either.

No, my problem with Barack Obama isn't that he's stupid. It's that neither he, nor anyone else, is as smart as he thinks he is.

Posted by Beldar at 04:26 AM in Obama, Politics (2009) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to "I don’t know what the term is in Austrian" and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) Roy Lofquist made the following comment | Apr 6, 2009 7:55:43 AM | Permalink

Dear Sir,

Agreed about the triviality of the gotcha crowd. I sense a different dynamic with Obama. In another politician with a reputation for humor the 57 state thing would get a laugh. He was commenting on the frenzied, gruelling pace of the campaign. The Austrian "gaffe", if said with a trademark intonation or expression that signaled quip, would be self deprecating humor.

Obama can't tell a joke. This problem is compounded by The Messiah image. The sayings of Jesus are parsed for a deeper meaning. My reading is that there is a puckish sense of humor in some.


(2) A.W. made the following comment | Apr 6, 2009 9:55:22 AM | Permalink

Well, as bad as that is, next he went up to the Austrian delegation and said, in a bad accent, "let's put a shrimp on the barbie!"

its interesting that only the right notices that obama is almost as gaffe prone as Bush.

Not that it is really the end of the world. He ain't a moron. i am just saying it puts some perspective on things.

(3) Greg Q made the following comment | Apr 6, 2009 5:47:54 PM | Permalink

I'm actually willing to give him a pass on this one. America and the UK both speak "English", but there are plenty of words and phrases that mean different things depending on which country you're in (for example: in America "pants" are outerwear. In England, that word refers to underwear (what we call "pants", they call "trousers)).

If he'd said "I don't know what Austrians call it, in America we call it 'wheeling and dealing'" it would have made perfect sense.

We can find better things than this over which to mock him.

(4) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Apr 6, 2009 5:58:15 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: Yes, I think you have it right. This is a small slip, and even Sigmund would dismiss it with a puff on his cigar, while Leno & Co. made jokes. In a month it would be forgotten.

But, just because we don't want to be so boorish as, say, Oliver Willis, let's not accept The One's self evaluation. He isn't as smart as he thinks. I'd go farther: he isn't smart at all. He's run of the mill; mediocre, neither smart nor dumb. He is going to be caught by this gap between perception and reality. So far, he's been fortunate in that the domestic economic crisis has overshadowed, the continuing foreign troubles. Foreign affairs will trip up The One. Then Roy's acute observation will be demonstrated. Unlike Reagan, he won't be able to use humor to help himself. Result: the bludgeon will whale away, The One's allies will have sore heads, The One's adversaries will laugh and laugh.

What a show!

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(5) GaryC made the following comment | Apr 6, 2009 9:24:30 PM | Permalink

Even though there is some authority supporting "whale away", I think it is clear that it should be "wale away".

According to Dictionary.com, the main definition of wale as a noun is a streak, stripe, or ridge produced on the skin by the stroke of a rod or whip.

The main definition of wale as a verb is to mark with wales, that is, to beat until there are stripes or welts.

This usage dates to before 1050 AD.

Between 1780 and 1790, a secondary meaning of whale was added which was to hit, thrash, or beat soundly.

If somebody was trying to write out a colloquial expression, realized that "wailing away" was obviously wrong, and didn't realize that there was a third homophone, then "whaling away" would have been the remaining (but wrong) spelling. This mistake, if it was one, was only possible once the "h" in whale was ignored in pronunciation. The fact that harpooned whales thrash madly in an attempt to dislodge the harpoons would have lent a plausible but slightly different meaning to the expression, with "beat severely" becoming "thrashed wildly".

(6) Dai Alanye made the following comment | Apr 7, 2009 1:33:41 AM | Permalink

Unlike Beldar and the generous commenters on this thread, I DO believe we should belittle Obama for his gaffes. This is a man who thinks himself brilliant beyond measure, a belief echoed by much of the media and commentariat. It's to our advantage to utilize his slips to help prove otherwise to the public.

For myself, I am ashamed to say that while the pointlessness and downright stupidity of his "ideas" were immediately apparent to me, I too overrated his intelligence. I originally estimated him as above the gifted level, while now he appears little more than high normal.

(7) Paul_In_Houston made the following comment | Apr 7, 2009 10:36:48 AM | Permalink

Dai Alanye said:

Unlike Beldar and the generous commenters on this thread, I DO believe we should belittle Obama for his gaffes.

I'm tempted to agree. I consider this man's goals to be very dangerous, and would like to use any weapon that would be effective against them.

Justifiable ridicule can be very effective indeed, and he is especially vulnerable there because he doesn't seem to have a trace of a sense of humor. Narcissists are usually so full of themselves, they probably have no room left over for one. And this condition does not appear to be curable. He NEEDS to be deflated as much as possible, although THAT might be a task for the ages.


(8) Xrlq made the following comment | Apr 7, 2009 11:25:29 AM | Permalink

Does anyone have audio? I can't help but wonder if there was an error in translation, with Obama actually saying "I don't know what the term is in Austria," and an Austrian reporter hearing a final n that simply wasn't there. That would be an easy mistake for a German-speaking listener to make, as the literal, word-for-word translation of "I don't know what the term is in Austrian" wouldn't have fazed anyone. When I lived there I got asked how to say things "auf amerikanisch" all the time. Not because the questioner was being a wise-ass, and certainly not because he was a moron who didn't know we speak English in America. It's the normal way to ask how you say something in the local dialect.

(9) El Gordo made the following comment | Apr 7, 2009 5:55:52 PM | Permalink

No matter whether he said Austria or Austrian, chances are he was lying.

(10) Beldar made the following comment | Apr 7, 2009 6:19:27 PM | Permalink

Xrlq (#8): I've seen it rendered as "in Austrian" in press reports from multiple sources, and it's rendered that way in the transcript on the whitehouse.gov website too. I haven't been able to find a video or audio clip yet, but I haven't made exhaustive efforts to do so either.

(11) Xrlq made the following comment | Apr 7, 2009 7:22:31 PM | Permalink

Nevermind, I finally did find audio and yup, he said "Austrian," not "Austria." Oh well. For once I thought maybe Obama hadn't said something incredibly stupid - and I was mistaken. I shan't make that error again.

(12) Kurt made the following comment | Apr 7, 2009 9:18:37 PM | Permalink

Nevertheless, there are differences between Österreichisches Deutsch und Hochdeutsch. And if it were an idiomatic expression, it would more likely be a Wienerisch than a Berliner phrase in Austria. Having said that, if Bush had said this it would've been a classic gotcha moment.

(13) Dai Alanye made the following comment | Apr 8, 2009 5:27:20 PM | Permalink

"Austrian" is an interesting and useful but minor gaffe. We really need to stress The Bow. Not only was it disgraceful to bow to the chief thug of Arabia, he looked ridiculous doing it. When the 2012 campaign opens, that brief cut must be shown often.

Next, I suppose he'll be dipping the flag.

(14) Thomas Jackson made the following comment | Apr 9, 2009 3:32:04 AM | Permalink

Actually how many displays of gross ignorance do we require from a man who pretends to speak to us from Mt Olympus? Now I can forgive a gaffe or two, but not when someone is presented to me as beyond the comprehension of mere human intellect. A brain so large that it distorts the gravitational sphere of the earth.

Lets face it, President Zero lives in a fantasy world, where knowledge doesn't count because affirmative action will take up the slack. It is a twilight zone where words have their own meaning, and actions and deeds can be explained away without consequence. Where the very fabric of traditions of a society are shredded if it doesn't meet the annointed one's exceptations.

We will have four years to endure this crass oaf. It makes me long for the competence of Carter, the honesty of Clinton and the charm of Nixon.

(15) Have Blue made the following comment | Apr 10, 2009 9:17:55 PM | Permalink

Beldar, Austria is not a NATO member. Western European countries that never joined- Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland. Spain joined very late, (well after Franco died.)

(16) Beldar made the following comment | Apr 10, 2009 9:42:00 PM | Permalink

Have Blue (#15), I blush, but thank you heartily for the correction. I've altered the text in the original post that read "NATO ally" to instead reference "the friendly people of Austria."

The comments to this entry are closed.