Billionaires, janitors, … and Jews?

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Andrew Malcolm, “New gaffe: Obama confuses Jews with janitors“, LA Times 9/26/2011:

Here is what the president actually said, catching himself almost in time but not quite:

If asking a billionaire to pay the same tax rate as a Jew, uh, as a janitor makes me a warrior for the working class, I wear that with a badge of honor. I have no problem with that. […]

Maybe in Saturday night’s speech Obama was thinking about all those talks on Israel in New York.

This has gotten quite a bit of play in the media as well as in the blogosphere.  The trouble is, I’m not at all sure that Mr. Malcolm’s version of the president’s speech error is accurate.

The full audio, video and transcript are available from “Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Phoenix Awards Dinner“. Here’s the audio and my transcript for the relevant bit:


If- if asking a billionaire to pay the same tax rate
as a [dʒũnʔ] uh as- as a janitor
makes me a warrior
for the working class
I wear that with a badge of honor

Here’s just the phrase with the speech error in it:


And just the substitution error itself:


If you listen carefully with headphones, I believe that you’ll hear not only nasalization of the [u] vowel, but also a short [n] (which is somewhat glottalized due to being cut off by his self-correction).

The nasal murmur is fairly clear in a spectrogram — I’ve underlined it in red in the plot below, which covers the sequence [dʒũnʔ] uh:

Note also the falling F2 in the first 30-40 msec of the “uh”, which is consistent with a preceding coronal articulation (i.e. the [n]), but not with a preceding [u] or [w] off-glide, which should cause all the formants to be rising at the start of the vowel.

So my diagnosis is that Mr. Obama started to say a version of janitor with [u] substituted for [æ] in the first syllable, but cut himself off immediately after the error, and produced the word that he intended.

Why that substitution? I guess it’s possible that there was interference from the word Jew — but I don’t think it was a simple lexical substitution, because the nasal from janitor is apparently already there. And there’s no obvious reason for Jew to be activated in that context. Of course, none of the alternative sources of lexical interference strike me as being especially plausible either — June? junior? juniper? jupiter? — but not every segmental substitution error has a clear lexical source.

At this point, I should repeat my long-standing conviction that speech errors, by politicians and others, are rarely if ever worth the fuss that they sometimes generate:

Hand fisted“, 10/14/2004
Gibson scores a ‘Bushism’, with an assist to Kerry“, 10/9/2004
Stickler shock“, 10/5/2005
LInguistic mens rea“, 10/6/2005
Never anything but less than precise“, 10/20/2005
The Eternal General of the United States“, 5/5/2007
Republicans and Democratics“, 6/7/2007
Blunder maven speaks“, 8/5/2007
Name chain nomenclature“, 4/19/2008
The dangers of mental search-and-replace“, 7/21/2008
Political slips of the tongue“, 8/24/2008
2008 political parapraxis II“, 8/26/2008
Sarah Pawlenty?“, 9/6/2008
My fellow prisoners“, 10/9/2008
Hijab, hajib, whatever“, 6/4/2009
Racist sociolinguistics from El Rushbo?“, 2/25/2010
Aksking again“, 2/26/2010
Surcame“, 1/9/2011
Palin perseverates“, 3/29/2011
Speech error of the week“, 4/8/2011


  1. sarang said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 9:27 pm

    I am definitely voting for “juniper” as being (a) a very similar word with a nasal in the right place, (b) a natural mistake for any of our gin-addled overlords to make.

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    Perhaps the word “union” is the culprit. To an audience in a heavily union area, he may be prepared to contrast billionaires with union workers. To the Black Caucus audience, he would select janitors.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

    Requisite “Annie Hall” clip:

  4. fev said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

    Andrew Malcolm is not known for letting the data get in the way of the talking points. Nice one.

  5. Skullturf said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

    I vote for “junior”. It looks similar to “janitor”. A very plausible speech error for someone who talks a lot for a living.

    Also, people who are junior in their positions would tend to be examples of people with lower salaries, perhaps contributing to the plausibility of that particular slip.

  6. Rebecca said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

    Was he using notes or a teleprompter? If so, I’d say reading error, not speech error, of “janitor” as “junior”. His eyes aren’t getting any younger.

  7. Glemph said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 2:49 am

    I see no mention of the other questionable item in this quote: “I wear that with a badge of honor.”
    “I wear that AS a badge of honor.” seems to be the ‘right’ (or, at least, the preferred) version, so I am wondering whether Hawaii or Chicago has a regional variant that allows ‘with’ instead of ‘as’.

  8. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 3:05 am

    An Irish colleague of mine likes to use the phrase “fair dues” and did so for years in front of another colleague and friend who happens to be a from New York and Jewish. One day she finally asked us where the phrase came from, because she thought we were saying “fair Jews” ;-)

    (It’s easy if you think about how differently people from Ireland and New York pronounce “due”)

  9. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 4:46 am

    >If so, I’d say reading error, not speech error, of “janitor” as “junior”.

    I don’t think there’s a shadow of an n there. How about Jupiter?

  10. Dakota said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 5:22 am

    Doesn’t sound like an n to me either, more like a flapped t, as in “judicial”, but then Obama has always sounded sort of nasally-Kansas to me. The vowel is not right for Jew either, too short. Or something. Is there a recording of him saying “Jew” for comparison?

    [(myl) The /d/ in judicial is pre-stress, so I wouldn’t expect it to be flapped in any variety of English I know of.]

    Teh wiki says he was born in 1961; 40 years old is the magical bifocal age. I say either he can’t read his teleprompter anymore, or maybe it had a typo, or maybe it was using something like Century Gothic font with single-storey lowercase a and he couldn’t tell it apart from a u.

  11. James said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 6:10 am

    My first thought was ‘junior’, but Mr. Fnortner’s idea is better (‘union’).

  12. Mar Rojo said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 7:14 am

    It’s a simple case of a false start.

    [(myl) This is where everyone who has commented on this event starts: it’s a speech error, in which the president starts to say something, stops, and corrects himself.

    What people disagree about is what kind of speech error it was, and what it means. Some people think that it was a lexical substitution error, and that the substitution has some sort of “Freudian slip” motivation, revealing something about the president’s unconscious (or at least unuttered) fears and desires. Others (including me) doubt that it tells us anything interesting even if it was a lexical substitution error; and I furthermore doubt on phonetic grounds that it involved substitution of the word “Jew”, and suspect that it was instead a phonemic substitution of uncertain etiology.]

  13. Mar Rojo said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 7:19 am

    He was probably thinking “school”, and “junior” (someone in their 3rd year of study) wanted to pop out.

  14. ray said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    I think it’s obvious on its face that it was a reading error. He looked at the word “janitor” and misread the “a” as a “u,” and saw the ending “or,” and began to read it as “junior.” He stopped himself when he realized that couldn’t be the right word, then re-read the correct word “janitor.” I don’t think there’s any reason he would have tried to plug the word “union” or any such thing in there – the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

    If he had been speaking off the cuff, then I think all these other arguments about Freudian slips and so forth could work. But he was *reading* off his TelePrompTer.

  15. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    If Jew made any sense in the context, I might at least start to wonder. But except for a limited number of occupations associated with Jews, fairly or not (I’m thinking of money lending, diamonds and jewelry, haberdashery, etc) I don’t think we normally associate Jews with specific occupations. Certainly janitor doesn’t come to mind.

    I say this in contrast to the famous “Barney Fag” incident wherein the speaker was referring to Barney Frank, who is in fact gay.

    Clearly something else led to Obama’s error. He might have been primed by a nearby sound, or something lexical, but I can’t imagine it had anything to do with Jewry per se.

  16. Kylopod said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    >One day she finally asked us where the phrase came from, because she thought we were saying “fair Jews”

    The line “paid my dues” from AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” always sounded to me like “Ain’t no Jews.”

    Also, in the line from “Stairway to Heaven,” “And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune,” for a long time it sounded to me like “…if we all call the Jew.”

    Being Jewish myself, I’ve always related to the famous “Jew eat?” scene from “Annie Hall.” I hear “Jews” everywhere.

    >He might have been primed by a nearby sound, or something lexical, but I can’t imagine it had anything to do with Jewry per se.

    To “pay the same tax rate as a Jew” could sound like an invocation of the stereotype that Jews are cheats. The problem is that “Jew” would be contrasted with “billionaire,” which if anything sounds like an inversion of the classic anti-Semitic belief that Jews are rich. Still, there’s no way to disprove the idea that Obama was inserting the word “Jew” due to some deep subconscious association in his mind between Jews and money, even if the resulting sentence didn’t make any sense.

    Ultimately, this comes down to a Rohrschach test. I think it’s absurd to suggest that Obama has any anti-Semitic motivations, conscious or otherwise. But many of his right-wing critics believe he does, and so they read into this simple mistake. I might do the same if it came from, say, Pat Buchanan.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    While I’m not noticing an n, or even a nasalized vowel (which doesn’t mean it’s not there), it definitely sounds like he cut himself off mid-word. However, that’s clearest in the last audio clip, the one that most isolates it. I can understand someone missing that and hearing “jew”, still, I think, on analysis, it’s clear he was beginning a longer word and didn’t finish.

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    The President’s gaffe was worth it just for the opportunity to learn of kylopod’s mondegreen version of Stairway to Heaven. I do assume that recent media hoopla about alleged disenchantment with the incumbent among some unknown percentage of Jewish voters and/or donors who had supported him in the 2008 campaign helped prime commentators to seize on this interpretation of the error. But, as noted above, it’s particularly weird because there’s no modern American stereotype of Jews paying higher tax rates than “billionaires.” If anything, if one were inclined to stereotype-mongering, voluntarily paying more taxes than one absolutely has to given ones circumstances (by failing to avail oneself of any and all available complicated tax-minimization stratagems) could be viewed as an instance of “goyische kopf” or “paying retail.”

    The other question is what a generic janitor was doing in the text to start with. The basic point being made had I believe started a few news cycles earlier with the specific claim that the (goyische) billionaire Warren Buffet was paying a lower percentage of his income in taxes than his secretary was. I can’t figure out what rhetorical improvement the president’s speechwriters might have hoped for by swapping in a janitor for the secretary. Of course, if you put “secretary” up on the teleprompter I guess the speech-giver might inadvertently say “sex” and you’d have a different speech-error controversy . . .

  19. Kylopod said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    >Of course, if you put “secretary” up on the teleprompter I guess the speech-giver might inadvertently say “sex” and you’d have a different speech-error controversy . . .

    Is this what you had in mind?

    And come to think of it, the contrast between that “controversy” and this one is striking. Nobody interpreted Bush Sr.’s “Freudian slip” as anything but amusing, whereas some commentators have taken Obama’s gaffe a bit too seriously. That’s what I was talking about before: any significance attached to this mistake says more about the preconceptions of the commentator than about the mistake itself.

  20. Lane said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    Many things point to “junior” – it’s visual resemblance to “janitor” and the fact that “a junior _____” could make perfect sense in the context, like “a junior employee” – the president probably hadn’t read far enough along to see that the word that followed “janitor” ruled out the word being adjectival “junior”.

  21. Dakota said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

    he speech-giver might inadvertently say “sex” and you’d have a different speech-error controversy . . .

    Bill Clinton did exactly that when he was running for reelection. I forget the exact words, but he was talking extemporaneously – about cigarettes I think – and used some bedroom word, I forget now exactly what. The crowd twittered, he recovered and corrected himself, and no hint of it ever appeared in the media.

    This week the pundits are talking about the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. and the Obama speech that pleased the Israeli government so much. Most see the reaction to the speech as a big plus for the Jewish vote in the upcoming election. Not good for Obama’s political opponents who have tried to stick him with a stealth Moslem label. What better way to distract the public from that event and get them talking about something else in the news cycle. It’s a never-ending game. But such is our political system.

  22. Lance said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

    Perhaps the word “union” is the culprit. To an audience in a heavily union area, he may be prepared to contrast billionaires with union workers. To the Black Caucus audience, he would select janitors.

    I think this has to be exactly right. Rachel Maddow just played a clip of Obama giving a speech–I don’t know where, but outdoors, so clearly not the CBC speech–and part of it was him saying “If asking a billionaire to pay the same tax rate as a plumber makes me a warrior for the working class, I wear that with a badge of honor.” More or less, at least; I wasn’t transcribing. But it was definitely the same line, with “plumber” as the thing that a billionaire would have to pay the same tax rate as.

    So that word changes in different speeches, and for whatever reason, he was thinking of some other word he usually puts there; “union workers” is plausible if not outright likely.

  23. John said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    In the “junior” camp. I think it sounds like a clipped “jun-” and like the mis-reading explanation.

  24. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 4:33 am

    I think he was going to say “a jukebox repairman” ;-)

  25. bloix said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    I immediately thought of the clip that Ben Zimmer put up – Jew? Jew?

  26. bloix said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    In my speech (at least as I hear it to myself) the vowel in Jew is not the same as the vowel in Junior or Jupiter. I say, or I think I say, Jyoo, not Joo, just as I say nyooz, not nooz. There’s not a full y sound, but it’s there enough that it changes the value of the u sound. I don’t think this is merely when I’m being self-consciously hyper-correct, because Robert Krulwich, on NPR, drives me nuts when he says “nooz.”

    What I heard in the Obama clip is a truncated Joo- do we know how he pronounces Jew?

  27. Ø said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    You can’t please everybody. Some other people on NPR drive me a little nuts when they say “knee-ooze”.

  28. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    Is it possible that the priming was due to a /w/ rather than a /u/? So he started to say janitor but got interference from the prosodically similar warrior marching into view four words ahead?

    @ Kylopod –

    AC/DC are Australian, and Led Zeppelin English, and for many (most?) Aussie and English speakers /dj-/ and /tj-/ have merged with /tʃ/ and /dʒ/. So there is no audible difference between dues and Jews; and tune would be [tʃuːn] (or [tʃʉːn]), not too far from [dʒuː].

    When I use the phrase pay your dues I tend to consciously try to unmerge it to [djuːz] to avoid the Jews association, but I probably just end up drawing more attention to it because it sounds rather formal.

  29. bloix said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

    To my ear, Jews for dues and chune for tune are characteristic of a “posh” English accent. But I’m probably wrong.

  30. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

    Well, upper-class people do it too, but it’s traditionally been deprecated. And certainly it’s standard in accents like Cockney and Mancunian. The word ‘choon’ has even taken on its own spelling in the dance music scene.

    It may be that because BrE and AmE seem to be going in opposite directions with this – one palatalising the consonant, the other tending towards yod-dropping – the former sounds particularly English to Americans and so is associated with poshness. But as far as I know it’s generally (apart from some accents like Welsh) the high RP speakers who maintain the difference (as well as in words like suit and lute where most speakers drop the /y/ but don’t palatalise).

  31. Ken Brown said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 7:07 pm

    I think that pretty much everyone from the British Isles says “Jews” and “dues” the same way.

  32. Eric P Smith said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    @Ken Brown: I accept that most people from the British Isles say ‘Jews’ and ‘dues’ the same way, but not “pretty much everyone”. Many people, myself included, carefully distinguish [dʒu:z] ‘Jews’ from [dju:z] ‘dues’.

    But there was much hilarity in an office I worked in many years ago where a document in German about German taxes was carefully translated into English using the phrase “German dues” and a typist rendered it as “German Jews”.

  33. Janice Byer said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    Being an old bat, I not infrequently have cause, in my quest to stay literate, to turn to the the Urban Dictionary. (“Turn to” is Old-fogey for “Google”) Today, I wanted a meaning for “sup” and was arrested to read in the 6th definition, the word “you” spelled informally as “jew”.

    Below is the cut-and-pasted 6th entry.

    6. SUP. …sup was derived from wassup. What’s up isnt an inquiry but an informal way of saying hello (Ex 1.) Many do in fact actually respond to the question with an answer but quickly disregard it and fray away from it… another way of responding to it would be (Ex 2.)

    Ex 1.) “Sup matt?”, “Nothing much just watching gay porn on my computer”

    Ex 2.) “Sup jew?”, “Hey man, havent seen your ass in a long time… wanna hang out on Saturday?”

    My WTF gave way upon reflection to ‘whatever’. Indeed, I’m inclined to sense in this homonym phenomenon a positive sign that what anti-Semites had feigned to intone as snark may be lost on today’s generation.

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