The extent of Melania's plagiarism

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The Trump campaign officially maintains that there was no plagiarism in Melania Trump's speech at the Republican convention. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort was astonishingly disingenuous: "These were common words and values"; "To think that she'd be cribbing Michelle Obama's words is crazy"; "There's no cribbing. What she did was use words that are common words"; "Care and respect and passion, those are not extraordinary words"; "50 words, and that includes and’s and the’s and things like that." But it is not words we are talking about, is it? It's word sequences. And you do not need to look at many word sequences, even quite short ones, before you start finding phrases that have apparently never occurred before in the entire history of the world (if we can judge by the sample of it that the web knows about).

The probability that spontaneously composed sentences of a dozen words or more might match up exactly is essentially zero. Below, on the right hand side of the chart, are the three passages in Melania's speech that have attracted attention, matched up with the corresponding sequences of Michelle Obama's 2008 speech to the Democratic convention in the left column. Red rows are completely identical word choices; yellow rows show minor differences but in context are near paraphrases; and green rows mark clearly different lexical choices. And remember, it's the sequence of adjacent rows that provides the devastating evidence:

Michelle Melania
1 you you
2 work work
3 hard hard
4 for for
5 what what
6 you you
7 want want
8 in in
9 life, life,
10 that that
11 your your
12 word word
13 is is
14 your your
15 bond bond
16 and and
17 you you
18 do do
19 what what
20 you you
21 say say
22 you're going to do and keep your promise
23 that that
24 you you
25 treat treat
26 people people
27 with with
28 dignity and respect respect

Michelle Melania
1 pass pass
2 them those lessons
3 on on
4 to to
5 the the
6 next generation many generations to follow
7 because because
8 we we
9 want want
10 our our
11 children — and all children children
12 in in
13 this this
14 nation — nation
15 to to
16 know know
17 that that
18 the the
19 only only
20 limit limit
21 to to
22 the height of
23 your your
24 achievements achievements
25 is is
26 the the
27 reach strength
28 of of
29 your your
30 dreams dreams
31 and and
32 your your
33 willingness willingness
34 to to
35 work work
36 for for
37 them them

  Michelle Melania
1 her their
2 integrity integrity
3 her  
4 compassion compassion
5 and and
6 her  
7 intelligence intelligence
8 reflected

9 in

to this day on me and for
10 my my
11 own daughters love of family and America

There's no point in doing the statistics on how likely it is that this could have happened by accident simply because Michelle and Melania both care about family values and certain words are quite common (though some have been trying). The probability is indetectably different from zero.

It will not, of course, have any relevance to the course of the presidential campaign: as Matthew Normam wrote in The Independent today, Donald Trump could appear on TV naked with a Trotsky tattoo on his chest and it would make no difference to the success of his campaign. Lying is a strategy for the Trump campaign, as is accusing Hillary Clinton of things she hasn't done. And sure enough, Trump aides have been blaming Clinton for the brouhaha: "when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, she seeks out to demean her and take her down," said Manafort on CNN's New Day. (The plagiarism charge actually emerged from the Twitter account of independent journalist Jarrett Hill, who watched the speech in a Starbucks in Los Angeles.)

The Trump campaign won't stop lying, but it shouldn't insult our intelligence this much. Somewhere on their staff is a speechwriter who simply cribbed two paragraphs from Michelle Obama's speechwriter, and somehow, insanely, thought it would not be noticed, even though both were prospective-first-lady speeches and would attract huge attention. (Melania says she wrote the whole speech herself. Sorry, but I think she's lying. It doesn't sound like an ordinary person. It sounds like a speechwriter's product, and I'm quite sure it is.)* This isn't the first plagiarism scandal in American politics, and such scandals aren't limited to the Republican party. But let's not pretend that it isn't a scandal.

For a nuanced comment on what this sort of plagiarism scandal actually means, read Mark Liberman's latest post.

* Update: I was right, of course, and we now know the name of the speechwriter: Meredith McIver. She has admitted the "mistake" of copying the passages above. This makes the earlier hot air from the campaign even more outrageous. Spokesperson Katrina Pierson said "This concept that Michelle Obama invented the English language is absurd." Yes, that would be absurd. But the notion that Meredith McIver lifted whole chunks of a speech in that language, without attribution, is not.

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