Of all the many, mostly apocryphal, anecdotes told of Abraham Lincoln, my favorite has always been this one:
(Lincoln poses a question to someone who has been arguing with him.) "If you call a mule's tail a leg, how many legs does the mule have?"
"Why, five," answers his puzzled antagonist.
"No," says Lincoln. "The mule has just four legs. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one."
This kind of category error commonly confounds our public and private debates, and it offers rich ground for those who enjoy or profit by fanning those debates into controversies and battles royal.
Our latest instance -- and one of the sillier we've been treated to in a season already looking to set records -- is the so-called Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." This plays nicely into the current brouhaha over illegal immigration and the various legislative actions and inactions that have been prompted by it. With two or more camps already well defined, lines drawn, and tempers edgy, it's either a brilliant marketing coup or one big dumb move to introduce a piece of forgettable cultural foam at the right moment. But introduced it has been. And predictably, those segments of the media, both mainstream and bloggish, that live by haranguing the perpetually outraged have their amps turned up to eleven.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" began as a poem titled "Defence of Fort M'Henry" and was printed as a broadsheet for easy and wide distribution in 1814. A short time later it was reprinted as sheet music, using the melody of a British (!) drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven" by John Stafford Smith, and with the title we now know. Not until 1931 did this song become officially the national anthem of the United States. It is worth remembering that the poem had, and the song has, four stanzas, although the second and third are almost never sung and the fourth is sung but rarely. One reason is the difficulty of the melody, of which one run-through is enough for most people. Another is the anti-British phrases in the middle: "the foe's haughty host"; "their foul footstep's pollution"; and others. Even the fourth, with its "Then conquer we must," embarrasses enough people nowadays to limit its use.
I won't insult you by offering the words of the first stanza here, as though you didn't have them by heart. But think of them now; hear the song in your mind's ear. "Oh, say can you see...". Then look at an English translation of the first verse of "Nuestro Himno."
The day is breaking, do you see it?
In the light of the dawn?
What we so acclaimed at nightfall?
Its stars, its stripes, flew yesterday
In the fierce battle in a sign of victory,
The glow of battle, in step with liberty
At night they said: "It's being defended!"
The voice of your starry beauty is still unfolding
Over the land of the free
The sacred flag?
Let's agree to begin with that there's nothing objectionable in this lyric. Let's agree further that it shares some themes with the first stanza of "Defence of Fort M'Henry." But is it a translation of that poem? A very loose one, it might be argued. But where are the bombs, the rockets? Where is the fervor? It would be more apt to say that it is a verse somewhat inspired by the Francis Scott Key original but reflecting a particular modern sensitivity to martial images and language. The second verse goes farther afield with talk of brotherhood and an obscure call to "break the chains."
So what happens when you sing those Spanish words to the same tune -- remember, a borrowed British one -- as we use for "The Star-Spangled Banner"? Are you then singing a "Spanish version" of the national anthem? No, of course not. You are free to sing any words to that tune, and unless they happen to be identical to Key's you are not singing the national anthem. Or you may recite Key's words aloud, and unless you happen also to change your intonation so as to produce the melody of "To Anacreon in Heaven," you are not singing the national anthem. You are singing the national anthem when, and only when, you pronounce Key's words to Smith's melody. Change anything, and you are reciting some other poem or singing some other song.
There can be no "Spanish version" of the national anthem or any other alternate version, unless Congress says so. Congress may conceivably say so, but if I were you I'd expect a solution to Social Security and, for that matter, war with Alpha Centauri before that happens. Until then, try to imagine what Abraham Lincoln would say:
"If you call "Nuestro Himno" a version of the national anthem, how many versions are there?"
Unless you're a talk show host or a careless journalist or a politician snatching at yet another diverting issue or you just plain enjoy being irked, you'll join Abe in answering "One. Calling "Nuestro Himno" a Spanish version of the anthem doesn't make it one."
Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopdia Britannica, and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004).