The Truth Behind the JFK "Jelly Doughnut" Myth

Did President Kennedy make a gaffe in his Berlin Wall speech?

JFK (left) stands on a podium near the Berlin Wall
© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Did President John F. Kennedy make a major German blunder in his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech at the Berlin Wall in 1963? According to some reports, JFK should have said "Ich bin Berliner" ("I am a citizen of Berlin"), because "Ich bin ein Berliner" means "I am a jelly doughnut." A Berliner is, in fact, a type of jelly doughnut made in Berlin. But did the president actually make an embarrassing error?

The Gaffe That Never Was

The myth that Kennedy had said "I am a jelly doughnut" did not appear until years after the president gave his speech. In 1988, a letter to the editor was printed in Newsweek identifying the supposed faux pas, and a few months later a full article about it appeared in the New York Times. The urban legend was later repeated by CNN and other outfits. Margit Hosseini, who heard the speech as a young girl, even came forward to say that she had laughed at the president's reference to a "pancake."

These reports, however, were erroneous. Experts say that Kennedy's grammar was flawless when he uttered his famous words on June 26, 1963. The phrase had been translated for him by a professional interpreter.

German speakers insist that President Kennedy said the phrase correctly, although possibly with a thick American accent. The German language has subtleties that very few non-native speakers grasp.

 If Kennedy had said "Ich bin Berliner," he would have sounded silly because with his heavy accent he couldn't possibly have come from Berlin. By saying "Ich bin ein Berliner," he actually said "I am one with the people of Berlin." The president had a German journalist translate the phrase for him, and that journalist coached him at length on exactly how to pronounce it.

It is true that in some parts of Germany the word "Berliner" can just as well denote a certain kind of jelly-filled pastry as a citizen of Berlin. But the double meaning is unlikely to cause confusion, since the word always appears in a certain context. Likewise, Americans might refer to a certain person as a New Yorker, and no one would mistake that person for the weekly magazine of the same name. The context matters.

A German Grammar Lesson

Hoping to put the misinformation to rest, linguist Jürgen Eichhoff undertook a concise grammatical analysis of Kennedy's statement for the academic journal Monatshefte in 1993. "'Ich bin ein Berliner' is not only correct," Eichhoff concluded, "but the one and only correct way of expressing in German what the president intended to say."

An actual Berliner would say, in proper German, "Ich bin Berliner." But that wouldn't have been the right phrase for Kennedy to use. The addition of the indefinite article "ein" is required, Eichhoff explains, to express a metaphorical identification between subject and predicate. Without this article, the speaker could be interpreted as saying that he is literally a citizen of Berlin, which was obviously not Kennedy's intention.

To give another example, the German sentences "Er ist Politiker" and "Er ist ein Politiker" both mean "He is a politician," but they're understood by German speakers as different statements with different meanings. The first means, more exactly, "He is (literally) a politician."  The second means "He is (like) a politician."  You would say of a Congressman, for example, "Er ist Politiker." But you would say of an organizationally astute coworker, "Er ist ein Politiker."

So, while the proper way for a Berlin resident to say "I am a Berliner" is "Ich bin Berliner," the proper way for a non-resident to say he's a Berliner in spirit is precisely what Kennedy said: "Ich bin ein Berliner." Though this expression can also be translated as "I am a jelly donut," no adult German speaker could possibly have misunderstood Kennedy's meaning, or regarded it as a mistake.