Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Mon Nov 29 14:10:16 UTC 2010

Interestingly, no one is calling these diplomatic cables "cablegrams"
in English, presumably because "cablegrams" went the way of the dodo
(as has the State Department's* credibility).

An indication that "cable" now has the specific meaning of a
"diplomatic dispatch" (or despatch) is that German newspapers are
translating "diplomatic cables" as "diplomatische Depeschen" and
French newspapers as "dépêches diplomatiques" and more sloppily (AFP
and particularly several Swiss-French papers) as "câbles
diplomatiques." Spanish papers are calling them "mensajes
diplomáticos," "cables diplomáticos" and "papeles diplomáticos".
Italian papers are calling them "messaggi diplomatici" and
"cablogrammi diplomatici". My guess is that this imbroglio will give
new life to the close cognates of the words "cablegram" and "cable" in
several European languages. And in Chinese, the rather old-fashioned
words "dianbao" (ç”µæ ¥ cablegram) and "dianwen" (电文 telegram) are also
making a quick comeback.

*Speaking of the State Department, if Downing Street meaning the
British government gets an entry in the OED how come "Foggy Bottom"
doesn't get one?


Paul Frank
Chinese, German, French, Italian > English
Espace de l'Europe 16
Neuchâtel, Switzerland
paulfrank at
paulfrank at

On Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 1:57 PM, Paul Frank <paulfrank at> wrote:
>> The OED defines "cable" as "cablegram" and "cablegram" as "A message
>> sent by submarine telegraph cable." The New Oxford American Dictionary
>> defines cable and cablegram as "a telegraph message sent by cable."
>> Is that what the cables and diplomatic cables Wikileaks has been publishing are?
> On Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 1:13 PM, Dave Wilton <dave at> wrote:
>> Technically no. "Cable" is diplomatic jargon for a message between an embassy and the capital. It once referred to submarine telegraphic traffic, but now it's done via internet, satellite, and other means, but the outdated term remains, like "dialing a phone."
> That's what I figured: diplomatic jargon for a message between an
> embassy and the capital. And it's not a sense covered by any of my
> dictionaries. The diplomatic component appears to me to be essential.
> The International Committee of the Red Cross, for example, is
> headquartered in Geneva and has missions in most of the world's
> trouble spots, but it doesn't receive "cables" from its field offices
> (or missions, in ICRC jargon). It receives classified and encrypted
> messages which are not referred to as "cables" (actually, they're not
> referred to as anything by the press, because none of those messages
> has been leaked in decades; within the ICRC they are called
> "inter-site messages" or just "messages"; the ICRC reports that were
> leaked in April 2009 were a different type of communication and they
> were leaked by the American side; but I digress). Perhaps this
> diplomatic meaning of the word "cable" ought to be covered by
> dictionaries.
> Paul

The American Dialect Society -

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