On “Cronkiters” and “Kronkiters”

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It was widely reported in Walter Cronkite’s obituaries that “Swedish anchors are known as Kronkiters; In Holland, they are Cronkiters.” Or by some accounts it’s the Swedes who use “Cronkiters.” This too-good-to-check linguafactoid came up in the comments on my post “Walter Leland Mr. Cronkite,” and commenter Lugubert swiftly dismissed the Swedish claim:

Google “cronkiter” and you’ll find all hits are in English. Smells of myth. I, Swede, 66, multilingual professional translator, have never seen or heard that word in any language. I’m afraid (read: convinced) that Mr. C is totally unknown by an overwhelming majority of Swedes.

If, never the less, a similar word would have been adopted into Swedish by the cognoscenti, I’m at least fairly sure that the for Swedish very odd -er would immediately have been replaced by a more normal nomen agentis ending like -erare.

There’s no reason to believe the Dutch part of the story, either. Read all about it in my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus.



17 Comments

  1. Nathan Myers said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 3:52 am

    I wonder about the role of Americans’ perceptions of Sweden, as more trustworthy than average, in the currency afforded this myth. If we were told, instead, that newsreaders in Ireland, Italy, or Iran were called by an American name, would be be more inclined to check? I’m interested, particularly, in how trust of the subject of the story leaks into trust of the story itself, and the story’s teller.

    This connects to another story, just reported today: web browser users are more inclined to discount warnings from their browser about the authenticity of a webserver pretending to be the site they mean to visit if they trust the actual site.

  2. David said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 6:24 am

    I can confirm that I have almost never heard Walter Cronkite’s name mentioned in Sweden until his death and that, like Lugubert said, it’s both the case that he was almost totally unknown and that his name has never been used as a name for a news anchor. If it had been, my intuition tells me it would very soon have been shortened to “kronkis”. I searched for that term on Swedish Google and found a couple dozen hits but none related to news reading at all. (Some US cultural phenomena can get this hypocoristic treatment, for instance, Clint Eastwood is widely known in Sweden as “Clintan” where “-an” is a hypocoristic affix, but Mr. Cronkite was not one of them.)

  3. Mr Punch said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Walter Cronkite was of course an example of the “Kansas City star” phenomenon — someone who is very well known within a certain geography, but virtually unknown beyond it. Kenneth Tynan, I think, noted of Johnny Carson that he was the best-known and highest-paid television performer in America, but his international fame was much less than that of the stars of widely distributed drama and comedy programs.

    There was a lot of American programming on European TV in Cronkite’s time, but it didn’t include the CBS Evening News.

  4. Faldone said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    I thought the dearth of hits for the Dutch version of the story might be due to a misspelling of the word as it would have been in Dutch, but “(c/k)r(o/a)nkijt” also gets nothing.

  5. Ken Brown said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 11:43 am

    “Walter Cronkite was of course an example of the “Kansas City star” phenomenon — someone who is very well known within a certain geography, but virtually unknown beyond it. ”

    Well, yes. I’m British. I have heard of him, but I wouldn’t have recognised him if he’d walked into the room. And I probably pay a lot more attention to US media than most people here.

    Same goes for Carson. Kenneth Tynam got it right. I think I would have recognised him, but he was almost never on TV here. I think I would recognise more actors who played newsreaders on US TV shows than actual newsreaders.

    (On the other hand I might recognise some ABC & CNN newsreaders because we can see them on digital channels over here late at night)

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    Well, in light of this, I’m extra glad that my introduction of the factoid in the earlier thread was hedged (“if the reports are true . . .”). The repetition and dissemination of this false claim by various reputable-sounding media sources seems particularly ironic given that Cronkite himself reflects a supposed lost golden age when people were more likely to assume that if a reputable-sounding media source reported it it must be true.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    Unintentional irony of the week: Connie Schultz’s column for 7/26/2009:

    Certainly, we are concerned about job stability. But veteran journalists are equally troubled by the online threat to standards we hold dear.

    If anyone had told me five years ago that newspapers would allow anonymous comments and that we would have to respond to them, I would have invited them to come for a walk with me to the land of grown-ups. […]

    The so-called citizen journalism of most blogs is an affront to those of us who believe reporting and attribution must precede publication.

    Fact-checking is tedious; it often derails juicy rumor and deflates many a story.

    And let’s not forget the dress code.

  8. Q. Pheevr said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    I hear the Germans named a disease after him, though. Or maybe even every disease.

  9. mossy said,

    July 27, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

    How on earth could that story have gotten started? It’s hard to imagine how someone could have gotten confused or misunderstood. Did someone just make it up out of thin air?

    [(myl) In the column he links to, Ben Zimmer advances a hypothesis about how it might have happened in this case, though all that he’s able to prove so far is that the story originated in a 1978 book by Gary Paul Gates, Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News. The (false) story was already fully formed at that point: “… anchormen in Sweden came to be known as ‘Cronkiters'”, and it apparently spread from Gates’ book by a process of borrowing and elaboration without checking (which Ben also documents). Ben suggests that there might have been a germ of truth — perhaps some Swede once suggested the coinage and Gates heard or read about it. Then again, Gates might just have misunderstood, or mis-remembered, or seriously exaggerated it.

    For a case where we know more about how the myth was formed and grew, take a look at Laura Martin’s analysis of the Eskimo-words-for-snow story (“Eskimo Words for Snow: A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example“, American Anthropologist, 1986, pp. 418-423), also recapitulated in Geoff Pullum’s hilarious essay reprinted in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language.

    And for another example of factoid generation and propagation, among thousands, you could retrace the story of the male-vs.-female word budgets, here, here, here, here, here, etc. ]

  10. Sili said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 4:38 am

    I, too, only knew of Cronkite (and I’ve only seen Carson in James Randi’s Youtube clips).

    A quick look at a Danish obituary doesn’t address the myth. And I’ve never heard it used for anchormen here – I don’t think I’d call an AM that either. More likely just “news host”. If it ever had any currency it could perhaps have been intramural – like graf, lede and the other journo words that I can’t recall.

    Did you ever buy an official pyjamas prof Liberman, or do we need to send you one? (Hmmm – when will LanguageLog Plaza open a souvenir shop? I can see a niche market for pjs with “When a grammarian kisses you, you stay kissed” printed on them.)

  11. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    @Sili: The “Cronkiter” claim has been made about Danish, too — see this snippet from an account of the 1987 convention of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association (“In Denmark, they call TV anchormen ‘Cronkiters’…).

  12. mossy said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    @Benjamin Zimmer. Thanks. Fascinating. It still seems bizarre to me that one mention somewhere could have such a long shelf-life. I guess it happens when people want to believe it for some reason. (Duh… guess so. Think of the “Birthers” — BTW a weird coinage to me. I thought it was a religious or home-birthing sect.)

  13. James Kabala said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    I was suspicious of this from the beginning, since what would Dutch and Swedish anchors have been called in the 1950s? It seems unlikely that a run-of-the-mill native word would have been displaced by a foreign eponym.

  14. mollymooly said,

    July 28, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    In the UK and Ireland, anchormen are not called “anchormen”, but rather “newsreaders”.

  15. bunsen_lamp said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 1:14 am

    I also happen to *know* that German has no word for furry and French has no word for victory.

  16. Oskar said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    As a Swede with several family connections to the news-industry I found the story very unlikely, not only on linguistic grounds (as many has pointed out “Cronkiters” doesn’t sound at all Swedish), but simply because of the fact that we have our own legendary anchors. Why would we use the name of an American that nobody’s heard of instead of our own great news-readers? It doesn’t make much sense, when you think about it.

  17. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 8:09 am

    Myths seem to thrive in proportion to the numbers they flatter. Some 300 million strong now, not a few Americans might naturally be gratified by the implication of Uncle Walter’s last name entering foreign lexicons as a synonym for what he was.

    Why Dutch and Swedish? My theory is that to an American ear, Walter [Walther?] Cronkite [Kronkite?] rings a German bell, kind of in the key of “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche”. In that post-WWII era, however, when the myth took hold, the implications of our Uncle Walter being admired by Germans would’ve been mixed. In contrast, we admire Germany’s immediate neighbors, the Dutch, unreservedly, and the Swedish are ever so good-looking and modern. It’s not their money that’s called Kroner, but that of the Danes and Norwegians, who, to not a few Americans, amount to the same people. Anyway, myths depend not on facts but associations.

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