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As Niall Ferguson defends his recent exercise in feline jollity, the outcry in some quarters recalls the European journalism of the interwar years, with which the Harvard historian of the twentieth century must be familiar. French newspaper writers could not resist gags based on the homophones Shah and chat, provoking minor diplomatic crises. In one of them, as Time Magazine reported in 1937,


. . . the King of Kings was furious over "another French insult." Month ago L'Europe Nouvelle criticized the economic condition of Iran. The King of Kings demanded an apology, received one. A French columnist last week reopened the wound by rehearsing the incident under the punning headline // n'y avait pas la de quoi fouetter un Shah. This was a parody of the French phrase "There was nothing there with which to beat a cat," suggesting that the King of Kings had made a fuss about nothing. The poor pun was enough to make Reza Shah Pahlavi last week recall to Teheran his Minister to France. Mirza Abolghas-sem Nadjm "for an explanation," and withdraw his promise to lend Iranian art objects to the coming Paris International Exhibition which opens May 1.
Time mentioned an even better incident concerning the alleged conduct of the previous Shah; here's the full article. And maybe this is all just a failure to communicate. Professor Ferguson, impatient with "politically correct claptrap," must empathize with his royal countryman, misunderstood Prince Philip.

Thanks to my brother, David Tenner, for calling my attention to the French-Iranian episode years ago.


Source: Wikimedia Commons
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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