More political speech errors

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John McCain has endorsed Mitt Romney for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and has been stumping for him in New Hampshire and South Carolina. In the course of those speeches, he's made a couple of name-substitution errors.

Here he substitutes "Obama" for "Romney":

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I am confident
with the leadership and the backing of the American people
President Obama will turn this country around.
We believe in America.
We believe that our best days are ahead of us.
President- excuse me, President Romney, President Romney …

And here he substitutes "Nitt- Mitt Romney" for "Newt Gingrich"

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Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint have joined with me
time after time
to go to the floor of the Senate
to fight against the earmark pork barrel corruption
that goes on in Washington DC.
Earmarks are a gateway to perd- uh to corruption
and I can tell you
that neither Nitt- Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum share that view.

This type of name-substitution is common — I've always been prone to it myself.  These examples illustrate several of the typical properties of the word-substitution type of speech errors:

  • Similar part of speech. In these cases, all the exchanged words are names.
  • Associated meaning. These are all names of closely-associated politicians.
  • Similar sound. "Romney" and "Obama" both share a penultimate stressed back vowel followed by /m/, and "Mitt" and "Newt" are both monosyllables starting with a nasal consonant and ending with /t/.
  • Collocational association. The frame "President __" activates "Obama" pretty strongly.

Senator McCain has gotten a certain amount of ribbing for these mistakes, but my own feeling is that the message of John 8:7 applies. A few examples from the 2008 campaign: "Political slips of the tongue", 8/24/2008; "2008 Political Parapraxis II", 8/26/2008; "Sound change in action", 9/5/2008.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 10:15 am

    These are horrendous! One can only imagine the embarrassment to our country if McCain were president and repeatedly came out with such gaffes while representing us around the world.

    [(myl) But there's already a history of word-substitution errors by U.S. Presidents. For example, Gerald Ford once toasted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat "and the great people of Israel — Egypt, excuse me." No lasting damage was done.]

  2. Antariksh Bothale said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    Was he trying to say gateway to perdition there before he backtracked and said corruption?

    [(myl) That's what it sounds like to me.]

  3. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    Nitt Romney – does that mean we can have a mute Gingrich?

  4. Antariksh Bothale said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 10:42 am

    A mute Gingrich would certainly be an improvement over the current one. But this isn't Politics Log, as GKP or ML would say, so let me stop myself here.

  5. Ø said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    Irrelevantly, I believe that "Newton" is pronounced much like "Nitten" in Scotland.

  6. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    Well, maybe he can just be moot.

  7. Janice Byer said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 11:37 am

    'Out of the mouths of old people…'

    "President Obama will turn this country around" sounds correct to me :)

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    And Jimmy Carter referred to Sen. Humphrey (late) as Hubert Horatio Hornblower ( Lasting damage? Hard to say.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

    We are all prone to this sort of name substitution from time to time (in conversations and talks during the Secrets of the Silk Road show held at the Penn Museum last spring, I occasionally substituted "Beauty of Loulan" for "Beauty of Xiaohe", probably because I had known about the "Beauty of Loulan" for a much longer period of time than I knew about the "Beauty of Xiaohe" — even though I think the latter is much more voluptuous than the former — and also because the former name rolls off the tongue more easily). But some individuals seem to have a greater propensity to commit such errors than others, and when they happen a lot, one begins to suspect that something is not quite right in their head. If they do it all the time, I would call them Mr. Malonym (after the legendary Mrs. Malaprop), and the type of speech error they commit I would refer to as malonymy.

    As for McCain's colossal "Nitt- Mitt Romney" for "Newt Gingrich", it is so spectacularly interesting that I believe it deserves a bit of analysis. The whole chain of mistakes was triggered by the preceding word, "neither"; McCain wanted to say "Newt', but it came out "Nitt-", probably because his mind was full of "Mitt", for whom he was stumping. Once he uttered "Nitt-" (originally meant for "Newt", mind you), he then had to correct that to "Mitt", after which along came the surname that goes with it. Thus: "neither" –> "Nitt" (for "Newt") –> "Mitt" (to "correct" "Nitt") –> "Mitt Romney" to complete "Mitt".

  10. Ken Brown said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

    This Englishman finds the idea that "Romney" and "Obama" have similar sounds to be a surprise. I would say "Romney" the same way I say the name of the place in Kent that I guess his paternal ancestors might have come from. I know I mispronounce the President's names (as most Brits seem to) but to me the only sound in common is the "m". And even that's not identical, I think the folowing n alters the m in some way I don't have the vocabulary to describe simply.

    [(myl) As you can hear in the sound clip, Senator McCain (like most Americans) has the same stressed vowel in "Obama" and "Romney".]

  11. Skullturf said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    Romney/Obama sharing a vowel before M is the father/bother merger, is it not? I have the merger myself, but I'm guessing "Romney" has the "bother" vowel and "Obama" has the "father" vowel. (To complicate things, though, it may be the case that some people without the father/bother merger pronounce "Obama" to rhyme with "Alabama", maybe.)

  12. Harlow Wilcox said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

    Better, then, that his name is Barack rather than Albert. Although I suppose he might do better in the American south if his name were "Al Obama."

  13. Janice Byer said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

    Harlow, or "Billy 'Bubba' Bob Obama" maybe?

  14. Eric P Smith said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

    @Ø: As a Scot myself, I confirm that some Scots pronounce "Newton" like "nitten". They also pronounce "nitten" like "nettin", and "nettin" like "nuttin" (but nothin' like Newton).

  15. Aaron Boyden said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

    Considering the number of times I've been lecturing and accidentally replaced a philosopher's name with the name of one of his or her more prominent critics, I'm inclined not to throw stones in this area.

  16. Skullturf said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

    I'm a math professor and I often say "parallel" for "perpendicular", and vice versa.

  17. Eric P Smith said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

    I have had many embarrassing moments over names, but the worst (and the funniest) was when I greeted an acquaintance in a rather formal context with "Good afternoon, Mr Innocent". His name is Mr Moderate. He was the secretary of a well-known professional association in the UK and if he reads this then I hope he laughs and forgives me. Both words are adjectives serving as proper names; the adjectives have associated meanings; both words are three syllables, stress on the first; the last phoneme in each word is /t/; in both words, the three syllables have 1, 1 and 2 moras; in both words, the three syllables have 2, 2 and 4 letters. The point about the number of letters may seem irrelevant but I have other evidence that my own mind, perhaps idiosyncratically, classifies words partly by the number of letters in each syllable.

  18. maidhc said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 12:31 am

    I notice that today's National Post has rechristened the US President as "Barrack Obama". Spell-check gone awry?

    The transcripts remind me of the Mel Blanc as Porky Pig jokes: "gol-d-d-d-dur-d-d-dur-d-d-SHIT!"

    However when I was getting chemo I discovered (or rather it had explained to me) that I developed a tendency to replace certain words with their opposite (like east/west, right/left) without it being consciously apparent to me. So the brain can be a funny thing.

    Criticizing politicians for mere slips of the tongue is silly. It's something that everyone does, only most of us don't have our every public utterance recorded.

  19. Alex said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

    Sure, we all make mistakes, but this sort of thing does seem to happen more frequently with age. My 85-year-old grandmother calls me by her dog's name about half the time (and vice versa), even though she's not at all confused about which of us is which. I'm not sure if word substitution is correlated with actual dementia, but I for one did consider McCain's age a valid issue in the last presidential election. This is just another reminder that he was the "You kids get off my lawn!" candidate.

  20. richard howland-bolton said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 7:48 am

    @ maidhc
    I lived the first 30-ish years in England and the second in the US. I find that I often say 'left' for 'right' and vice versa, even when I'm in the car approaching the turning or whatever.
    I think that maybe I have the notion of 'across opposing traffic flow or not' lurking in there somewhere that overwhelms mere direction.

  21. Dick Margulis said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    @Richard: I've known two fully competent adults who could not distinguish left from right. I had a cousin who, giving driving directions, would say "driver side" and "passenger side" to indicate turns. I had a boss who had spent so many years checking type (hot metal version, on the composing stone) that he read as easily backward as forward and could no longer tell which he was doing unless he stopped to think about it. He often stripped page films reversed as a result.

    Regarding word substitution, the homely example we can probably all relate to takes place within the family, with substitution of a daughter's name for a sister's or a father's for a son's or an ex-husband's for the current spouse's. The only feature I've noticed that influences this is how recently the other person (the one whose name is substituted in) has been encountered or at least thought about. I suspect the same feature is at work when politicians do this. I'm not sure age is a factor (although dementia certainly is).

  22. Chris said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    On a lesser scale, Meghan McCain is now being criticized for using "a small emoticon of privacy" where she likely meant "modicum of privacy." The kicker is that she repeated it. Was she primed for the second slip?

    Video here:

  23. Nebet said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

    I have done this often, generally when introducing myself (I am female) to my brother's friends with "I'm [brother's name]'s brother" instead of "[brother's name]'s sister." I believe that this is because the word I associate with my brother is, well, "brother" — I almost never have cause to think the word "sister" since we have no other siblings.

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