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Verbal Energy

When diplomatic language isn't just double talk

When a former secretary of State describes the US and China as 'frenemies,' she reminds the Monitor's language columnist that diplomatic lingo isn't all euphemism.

By Ruth Walker / February 6, 2013



The term "diplomatic language" often refers to communications that are short on substance but long on euphemism. In fact, you might say that "diplomatic language" is itself a euphemism for "euphemism."

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But sometimes a diplomat comes along who contributes to public discourse by calling 'em as she sees 'em.

So it was, the other day, when former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking at a public forum at Wellesley (Mass.) College, nailed the US-China relationship with a bit of slang ripped from the celebrity tabloids: "We're 'frenemies,' " she said.

Frenemy, a portmanteau of "friend" and "enemy," has made it into the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. It's defined as "one who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy." The dictionary traces it back to 1977 – long enough that it's made it onto some people's lists of Words We Wish People Would Stop Using.

But note this definition from Urban Dictionary: "Someone who is both friend and enemy, a relationship that is both mutually beneficial or dependent while being competitive, fraught with risk and mistrust."

Change "someone" to "some country," and doesn't that capture it? The China that builds Americans' toys (children's and grown-ups') and buys their T-bills; the China whose economic expansion forces up prices and tightens supplies of commodities like oil and cement; the China that needs American technology and education just as the United States needs its low-cost manufacturing. Who knew that Urban Dictionary would contribute to the diplomatic lexicon?

Ms. Albright got off some other zingers, too. She made her point that the US is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power, and needn't choose between oceans, by noting that the US is "not monogamous."

The first time I saw Albright – and the only time it would be fair to say that I met with her – was back when she was just Ms. Albright, rather than Madam Secretary. She had dropped by the Monitor for an editorial board meeting in her capacity as foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who, as you may recall, did not win.

She was more fun than most such visitors. As we talked about some issue or other on which the generally reported perceptions were different from the insider view, she had a confident and confidential manner. She seemed to suggest, "It's just us, and I can say things to you that others may not 'get.' "

Come to think of it, though, in that same campaign, our other European-refugee secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, used a variation of that technique on behalf of George H.W. Bush at another Monitor meeting.

With her colorful suits, the first woman to serve as secretary of State was a far cry sartorially from the pinstripe stereotype. She used her trademark brooches as a subtle diplomatic channel of their own. She had a bee-shaped brooch that she liked to wear "when I felt like I should float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, like Muhammad Ali," as she told the Los Angeles Times recently. She wore it once to a meeting with the late Yasser Arafat, who she felt needed some diplomatic prodding.

Young Americans have gotten so used to women heading the State Department that it may be a novelty to see John Kerry in the post. It will be interesting to see what channels he finds for his messages.

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