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Pronounced /dɪˈpləʊməsɪ/Help with pronunciation

The West seems to have avoided a further unpleasant military conflict with Iraq by means that were said by some commentators to have been “a triumph for diplomacy”.

This modern sense of diplomacy, “the management of international relations by negotiation” has a curious history. The original Greek word diploma from which it comes just meant something that had been folded in two (it is a distant relative of our word double). This word came into English with the same meaning as it had in its Latin intermediary, “a state paper or official document granting some privilege”, a usage which arose because in the days before the envelope had been invented documents of that kind were commonly folded and sealed to keep them private.

From here, the word split two ways in English. In one, it retained much of its original sense by becoming a name for the piece of paper formally granting an academic or professional qualification, a use which diploma still has, though these days it’s more likely to be rolled up with a bit of ribbon around it than folded in two.

Its other meaning grew up by a process of transference, firstly by referring to an archive of such official state papers (strictly speaking, the originals of such papers: even today a diplomatic copy is one exactly reproducing the original). In English the adjective diplomatic first referred to such documents, or to the process of deciphering ancient state papers. In eighteenth-century French another transfer of meaning occurred around the phrase corps diplomatique. It originally meant just such an archive, but as the papers frequently referred to international relations, the phrase came to refer instead to the body of men who administered them.

This sense arrived in English near the end of the eighteenth century. Edmund Burke is credited with the first use of diplomacy in 1796: “The only excuse for all our mendicant diplomacy is ... that it has been founded on absolute necessity”. As you may guess from that quotation, at first diplomacy was an unflattering word, echoing Sir Henry Wotton’s wittily disparaging comment that “An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Even in more modern times diplomacy has continued to have a bad press: the Encyclopaedia Britannia remarked in 1870 that “What we know of diplomacy was long regarded ... partly as a kind of activity morally somewhat suspect”.

The adjective diplomatic has evolved further. Since a diplomat was someone who negotiated treaties and the like, to be a good diplomat meant that one was a skilled negotiator; it also implied care not to give offence unnecessarily and wrapping up awkward truths in a pleasant wrapper. As Isaac Goldberg wrote in the twenties: “Diplomacy is to do and say / The nastiest thing in the nicest way”. So we now commonly use the word in the sense of being tactful or being good at personal relations, a sense which is new enough not to be included in the big Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, written the better part of a century ago.

It’s a long way from folded bits of paper.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 29 Nov 1997