The return of "Blah People"?

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A half a dozen people have sent me versions of this clip of Rick Santorum giving a campaign speech on March 27 in Wisconsin:

(The relevant passage starts at 34:24 of the recording.)

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We know
we know the candidate Barack Obama, what he was like,
the anti-war, government nig- uh the f- the uh
America was
a source for division around the world
that what we were doing was wrong, and we needed to pull out, and we needed to pull back,

The crux:

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the anti-war, government nig- uh the f- the uh

What everyone wants to know, of course, is (as Gawker and many other media outlets asked) "Did Rick Santorum Almost Call President Obama the N-Word?":

Here's a clip of Rick Santorum speaking at the Armory in Janesville, Wisc. on March 27, stumbling over a word that sounds a lot like the n-word. What on earth could he have been trying to say? Maybe he meant to call him "bleaugh"?

I very much doubt that Rick Santorum uses the word nigger in casual conversation, or that he started to say it here and caught himself out of a sense of political correctness. Presumably this is a speech error, somehow blending parts of the word that he meant to say and other words that he had previously said or was about to say or was thinking of saying. But unlike in the "blah people" case, I'm at a loss for plausible theories of what the inputs to this error might have been. And there's little doubt that the syllable he stops and corrects is [nɪg] (though this could be the start of "negotiations" or "negativity" or something else…)

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39 Comments

  1. Morgan said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    Why do you doubt that Santorum uses the word in casual conversation? There's nothing I've observed about him that makes me think he's the sort of person unlikely to use it. On the contrary, he seems to have displayed a stunning lack of sophistication and exactly the sort of Limbaugh-listening, reactionary right-wing views that seem perfectly plausible companions to casual racism.

  2. anon said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    Listening a bit to contemporaneous stump speeches, I found that Mr. Santorum was making a great deal about Mr. Obama's discussions with Mr. Medvedev and critiquing his "negotiations" with our enemies at the expense of our allies. I wonder if he got ahead of himself in thinking about "anti-war, government" and switched to "negotiator," with potentially an inversion of "big government" to "government big" with that lingering issues of "negotiator." In fact, just before the audio clip, he's directly referring to the "after the election" hot mic incident (34:01-34:14). That's my only guess, and I don't know how strong it is.

  3. Dick Margulis said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    I'm thinking it's "-nik"—perhaps he skipped a line of his prepared script (whether on paper or on TelePrompTer or in his head) that went from "antiwar" to "peacenik" and then became confused because he'd lost his place.

    And please don't take this as a defense of anything the man has ever said about anything. I'm just trying to answer the question asked.

  4. Evan said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

    FWIW, on moving from NYC to rural OH 12 yrs ago, I was surprised at how often I heard "nigger" used in casual conversation among my (white) neighbors. Seems to be a bonding thing out here. You should hear how they say "Mexican."

  5. GeorgeW said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    The N-word wouldn't seem to fit the context.

  6. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

    Answering Morgan: I think the reason to be sure that Rick Santorum doesn't use the word nigger in private conversations, and that he probably wasn't on the edge of using it here, is that racism that overt really has become so toxic in America that every experienced politician knows his career would be over in about eight minutes if he showed he was a racist or talked like one. Remember Trent Lott, who used no taboo word. It's one of the things I love about our country: racism hasn't disappeared, of course, but it's so absolutely unfashionable that a Senate candidate or Presidential hopeful can no more toss taboo words about racial groups around than he can appear on the stump naked. He can send out "dog-whistle politics" signals of which side he's on, of course; but you really have to watch your mouth, or people will not just despise you, they will drop you, and stop donating. Overt racism has sunk to a lower status than mere immorality in American politics; it's basically a career-killer. Rick Santorum doesn't seem to be bright, but I bet he's bright enough to be aware of that.

  7. Andrew Rodland said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

    In context it wouldn't be crazy for him to call Obama a "niggler" — only to realize how horribly bad that could sound and backtrack.

  8. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    None of us has any idea whether he uses the word in private, but as GeorgeW (the commentator, not the President) says, it just seems too bizarre here. The ant-war, the government nigger/nigga? Surely even racists would be unlikely to just lob that phrase in without a good bit more context, probably a context mocking AAVE or hip-hop culture.

    Surely the most that can be suspected is that the presence of the word in his subconscious might have influenced whatever it was he was trying to say?

  9. Fred said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

    Agreeing w/ GeorgeW and thinking that anon is on the right track initially, my vote goes to "government negotiations", although I can't imagine why he'd have stopped short on that.

  10. Dan Villarreal said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    Oh, it's totally "governmentnik". The more I listen to it (granted, with my own hypothesis in mind), the more I'm convinced it's too quick of a closure to be voiced, and furthermore that the brief pause afterwards sounds to me not like a repair (the hyphen that's being transcribed above) but a comma. And contra Dick, I don't think that this was a mistake. Though "governmentnik" itself would be a nonce coinage (google prior to this week and you get no hits), I don't think it's implausible that Santorum is using Red Scare-era suffix (http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/127102) to describe Obama as someone who is a threat to the "traditional American values" he espouses–remember that Santorum's fanbase overlaps strongly with the slice of the electorate that believes (in earnest!) that Obama is a Communist. And though the suffix is a bit dated (OED gives its last usage as 1993), this wouldn't be the first time that Santorum has used or alluded to rhetoric that seems somewhat dated.

    Here's the minute or so of Santorum's remarks prior to the contested morpheme: "Because that's how he [Obama] sees America. Not as E Pluribus Unum. Not as Out of Many, One. But as a country that is broken, that needs to be unified by a powerful government that makes everybody get the same, because then it's fair. That is Barack Obama's vision for America. It is why he proposes the bills he proposes. It is why he whispered [to Dmitri Medvedev], off camera, he thought [grumbles in the audience], say just gimme a little space, we'll take care of this. After the election."

    To my ear, it's shot through with Red Scare-like language, especially the "needs to be unified by a powerful government that makes everybody get the same, because then it's fair", with not a small hint of disdain in "then it's fair" (alluding to Communism), as well as the reference to Obama's dealings with Medvedev.

  11. Dan Villarreal said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

    So yeah, given that that's the rhetorical context in which Santorum calls Obama "the anti-war government [nɪ{velar stop}]", I think it's most likely the case that Santorum is using the "-nik" suffix to index Obama's (insidious! Communistic!) political allegiances.

  12. Rube said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    I wonder if there was going to be something about "negativity" that got hopelessly jumbled until he gave up.

  13. GeorgeW said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    Preceding this statement were comments referring to the open-mic comment to Medvedev about nuclear negotiations. Maybe 'negotiations' was still on his mind as he goes into this characterization of Obama but realizes that it doesn't fit.

  14. Patrick said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    Maybe the solution is indeed "governmentnik"?

  15. D.O. said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

    The only thing I can think of, is that at this stage of the campaign "government" is a dirty word and when Mr. Santorum recognized that he is about to give Mr. Obama credit for criticizing the government, he quickly backtracked.

  16. meesher said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

    My guess is that, following "anti-war," he was going for something along the lines of "governments, negotiate with hostile, type of candidate" realized that wasn't grammatical in English, and carried on along the same lines.

    But I wouldn't put it past him to use the word in private.

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

    @ Dan Villareal

    Governmentnik was how I heard it too, the first time round. I dismissed it as too unlikely but now you mention the full context that does lend it support. Against it, though, is that he does then stop and reach for the thought in a way that suggests he's made a slip.

    Another possibility is that he was intending to say something like

    the anti-war, peacenik, government-knows-best candidate…

    but accidentally omitted the peacenik, started on government, and then -nik showed up late with no gift.

  18. Polymerjones said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

    I agree with Dan Villareal and Dick Margulis. It was "government-nik." A McCarthyist dog whistle, not a blatant racist epithet. The man is still terrible, but I don't think Santorum was about to use the "n" word in this particular case.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

    The odd thing about the "government-nik" hypothesis is that Sen. Santorum is neither the right generation nor the right ethnicity for it to be particularly plausible that his native variety of English would have -nik as a morpologically productive suffix he would use for off-the-cuff coinages. He probably knows peacenik and possibly beatnik but I'm doubtful he'd understand them as part of a broader pattern including Sputnik, nudnik, etc etc etc, much less try to extend that pattern.

  20. Emily said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

    I don't find it implausible that he was actually about to say the N-word–though the whole speech is riddled with sloppy speech errors–but I've been trying to think of a single other word that would fit the sentence it seemed he was embarking upon, and all I can think of is "Ninny." Though THAT seems a bit out of character.

  21. Emily said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 6:27 pm

    Oh shoot, but "ninny" doesn't work, because he very clearly says either "nig" or "nik." Nickers?

  22. Pittsburgh Native said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    The phrase "government ******" is used in Pittsburgh, where Santorum grew up, to mean a black person who "lives on welfare." It's also meant to trigger a notion of "government's boy." I heard the phrase multiple times, from multiple disgusting people, growing up. As for whether he said it or not, I guess we can't 100% know, but for whether or not it makes sense, in the version of English Santorum grew up with, it does.

  23. Dick Margulis said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

    I like Dan Villarreal's suggestion of "governmentnik" better than my original suggestion. Makes a lot of sense.

  24. ted louie said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

    This is probably a stump speech Santorum has given numerous times and it would be interesting to hear what he has said on previous occasions.

    By the way, is there something wrong with being anti-war, as he alleges Obama to be?

  25. Lance said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

    Have you gone berserk? Can't you see that man is a ni?

  26. Anatoly said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 2:58 am

    My guess is, he was aiming for "nihilist" (which in many languages is pronounced as "nigilist")

  27. Santorum Calls Obama The Antiwar Government Nigg Uh The Fu The Uh « This Day – One Day said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 4:26 am

    [...] The return of "Blah People"? (languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu) [...]

  28. Nicholas Waller said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 6:33 am

    I always thought that the knights in Monty Python and The Holy Grail who were keepers of the sacred words Ni, Peng and Neee-Wom was a bit of joyous riffing on other sacred words in fantasy and history. But now I see that in fact some of these word fragments have genuine political and cultural power in the modern real world.

    TALL KNIGHT
    We are the Knights Who Say "Ni"!

    BEDEVERE
    No! Not the Knights Who Say "Ni"!

  29. GeorgeW said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 7:40 am

    @Anatoly: Yes, 'nihilist' would work philosophically (from Santorum's perspective) and in the context. But, why would he hesitate?

  30. Dakota said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 7:46 am

    Don't know where this guy is from, but here's someone else who doesn't need any context for "government n*gger":
    http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/government-nigger

  31. TJ said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    Thank you, Lance. Thank you.

    I really don't know what he was about to say. I do, however, think that this is gold. It is so rich with possibility that I have to stop and appreciate the gift of this awkward moment. Only he knows what happened and, for better or for worse, any explanation he presents will be suspect.

    All of that said, I do think the pause afterwards sounds very much like a correction of course, going against the governmentnik defense. I think Santorum is a horrible candidate without thinking that he is an overt racist. This clip is neither here nor there. Just a remarkably unfortunate moment in public speaking.

  32. Mona Williams said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    Like Pittsburgh Native, I interpreted Santorum's seeming misspeak as a start on the racist version of "government boy." It seems to me quite likely that this might be a phrase he would use in private, and the friendly, supportive environment in which he was speaking might have relaxed his guard enough for him to begin to come out with the phrase.

  33. tpr said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    I like the 'knickers' theory, but not because I think it's correct. Actually, the best way to answer this question is probably to guess wildly (that is to say, the best answer we can come up with is probably no better than a guess).

  34. Aaron Toivo said,

    March 31, 2012 @ 9:20 pm

    Smooth-talking and intelligent politicians are still perfectly capable of letting something unfortunate slip into their speech once in a blue moon, and stressful campaigns – those that run candidates ragged and require them to talk and talk and talk every single day – set up exactly the sort of environment you'd expect the risk of speech goof-ups to rise. So it is not implausible that it really was about to be the N-word just on the basis of the "politicians know better" argument.

    For comparison, it is critically important for drivers to pay attention at all times, and yet accidents happen even to good drivers.

    Also, the phonetics are against the -nik hypothesis: for a normal voiceless stop in final position you'd expect either aspiration or for it to just go unreleased, but the plosive burst at the end doesn't sound like normal aspiration – or anything else that would normally be there, but more like an effect of cutting off the utterance midstream. The stop also seems to lack the glottal reinforcement that would normally be expected of final voiceless stops, and which is present in the last syllable of "government". So either it wasn't a voiceless stop or it wasn't going to be in final position, or both.

  35. Jeff Allen said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 1:31 am

    Having lived in the Pittsburgh metro during the 60's, I can attest that the word "Nigger" was in common usage among suburban whites, and was deroggatory. Culturally, there is a sound basis for him as a young man to be exposed to both the word, and the attitudes surrounding it common among whites. (Interestingly, In my youth, I actually visited Butler frequently. I may know people who knew his family…)

    It is not a big step, as has been pointed out earlier in this discussion, for him to have relaxed in front of a friendly audience, and let slip what runs through his mind, as was shaped by his upbringing, and the philosophical positions he has taken politically.

  36. Anon said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 1:43 am

    I grew up in Pennsylvania, too, and while I never heard the phrase used the way Pittsburgh Native reported it, I certainly encountered lots of overt racism. This was by no means limited to rednecks or people you might expect it from.

    Santorum comes off as someone who has bizarre beliefs and who votes based on them, but who wouldn't knowingly say something hurtful. Even if you think he's evil, he seems like a friendly, polite sort of evil, and that image is very hard for some people to square with overt racism. Unfortunately, growing up, I encountered lots and lots of people like that. They are just really good about not being overtly racist when minorities are actually present.

    It is theoretically possible to grow up in the US without being exposed to lots of really upsetting overt racism. Many of my friends claim they've never seen it, which would be great if it were true. Based on my own experiences, though, by far the most plausible explanation is that Santorum just slipped up and forgot he was being recorded.

  37. Acilius said,

    April 1, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

    Yes Hedley, I mean Lance, thanks.

    I'm not so sure about the senator's age and ethnicity ruling "-nik" out. His grandfather, the immigrant coal miner whom he so often cites, was a Communist, so presumably both the Russian language and the Second Red Scare as the definition of the American Right would have been somewhat familiar in the Santorum household as the senator was growing up. I don't particularly believe the "governmentnik" hypothesis in regard to this bit, it just doesn't sound like that's what he's saying. But I wouldn't be surprised if he did produce a lot of words ending in "-nik" and expect people to hear them as references to Stalinism.

  38. Jo said,

    April 3, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    It's hard to google "government nigger" right now to see if it's in common use since all the hits seem to be about this incident. On the other hand there were at least two legit mentions in google books, one from 1983 (James Cran) and the other from the late 1960's (Ted Joans). I can't find info on Cran, but Joans is from Illinois. Maybe a midwestern thing?

  39. un malpaso said,

    April 3, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    OK I had to listen and give my 2 cents also (being from an area in the urban South where the n-word can definitely still be heard in unashamed contexts if you get far enough away from civilization), and …
    I am leaning toward the "governmentnik" theory now, too, just in the way that he seems to actually end the word with the consonant and smoothly elide into the "uh". It doesn't sound quite like a checked mistake to me. I agree, however, that it's a weird choice of words if that was his intent… the terms "peacenik", "beatnik" and "nogoodnik" definitely have an anachronistic flavor nowadays, and I just can't see Santorum being that linguistically "clever". But to my ears, I can't hear "nig" with a G at all.

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