Another slur-or-not

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Ryan Miller, "Jeremy Kappell apologizes in Facebook video, promises he did not use racial slur on TV", Rochester Democrat & Chronicle 1/7/2019:

Meteorologist Jeremy Kappell promised that he did not use a racial slur in reference to Martin Luther King Jr. and issued an apology to anyone who may have been hurt by his slip-up during a television broadcast last week.

WHEC-TV (Channel 10) fired Kappell on Monday, three days after he appeared to refer to a Rochester park as "Martin Luther Coon King Jr. Park" in a live shot on a newscast. Kappell said that he jumbled his words by mistake during a four-minute Facebook video that he posted on Monday evening.

Lisa Davidson and Joshua Raclaw thought it was a plausible speech error:

Here's the audio clip:

[h/t Ben Zimmer]

Update — in the comments, Ricardo asked "can anyone find recorded examples of a very similar error?"

This might be a vowel perseveration (from "Luther") or a vowel anticipation (from "Junior"). Here are some word-to-word vowel perseveration errors (among many more) from the UCLA speech error database:

  • "I'm going to talk to my lawyer" -> "I'm going to talk to my liar";
  • "the whole planning process as you know" -> "the whole planning process as you knew";
  • "beef noodle soup" -> "beef needle soup";
  • "Have you given your paper a title" -> "Have you given your paper a tater";
  • "if the juices fill the space" -> "if the juices fool the space";
  • "The July 8th meeting was our regular monthly meeting" -> "The July 8th meeting was our regular menthly meeting".

Some vowel anticipation errors from the same source:

  • "during the first blue book" -> during the foost …. ;"
  • "they were looking for bigger and better things" -> "they were looking for begger … ;"
  • "whether it's an endowment" -> "whither it's an endowment";
  • "Nantes lost her first service" -> "Nates lerst her first service";
  • "As soon as the wage price freeze ends" -> "As soon as the wige price freeze ends";
  • "available for exploitation" -> "avoilable for exploitation".

This doesn't rule out the possibility of a "Freudian slip" explanation. But psychologists who have studied speech errors over the past few decades have generally concluded that most such errors are simply the symptom of a difficult many-layered cognitive and motor task, and not the leakage of unconscious fears, desires, or attitudes.



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 7:21 am

    Yet another witch-hunt. Adduce evidence that the man is a racist, prove that he has deliberately used the word "coon" in other contexts, and you have very justifiable grounds for dismissal; but to take one accidental on-air error and assume that it was an intentional slur is unjust, unfair and totally unacceptable.

    I tried to add this as a comment to the cited article, but comments could be added only by those registered with Facebook.

  2. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 8:11 am

    Authority for the following statement: I'm a labor and employment lawyer.

    The smartest thing for the TV station's HR director to do would be to open an investigation and contract with a linguist (maybe one of yinz?) to prepare a report and opinion, within a reasonable degree of professional certainty, as to the likelihood of this speech act being a "blending error".

    …smarter still would be for all parties concerned to hold their horses and refrain from making _any_ public statements until the investigation (which really shouldn't take much longer than a few days) has been concluded.

  3. GeorgeW said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 8:18 am

    Would someone make this mistake had they not said 'coon' with his name previously? Genuinely curious.

  4. Grover Jones said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 8:28 am

    Ironically, he damaged himself by correcting himself so quickly. If he had gone on to say "Koon Jingyer" or some such (obviously switching the vowel sounds in the two words), it would have been more obvious what was going on. The witch hunt is inexcusable.

  5. EthanG said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 8:31 am

    GeorgeW – as the original tweet from Dr. Davidson points out, it's very common to be thinking about the next word you're going to say, and end up trying to say both words at the same time. In this case, saying "King" and thinking "Junior" ends up mixing together to form the slur. Just listening to the clip out of context, this is very plausible to me.

    That being said, in cases like this I tend to assume that the company has a halfway competent HR department, and reacting this quickly indicates they know things that we, the public, do not, and he was already on thin ice.

  6. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 8:36 am

    Ethan G said,
    "[…] I tend to assume that the company has a halfway competent HR department."

    At the risk of appearing flippant, why would you assume that? Come, let me take you on a tour through Westlaw…

  7. Nicole Holliday said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 8:59 am

    To the point above, it seems that this “error” might be more likely if someone had uttered it before. And the fact that folks are jumping in here to call it a “witch hunt” which itself has deeply racialized and gendered connotations (especially these days), is very telling. This man works in media, and appearances and public opinion count for everything there. Given the gravity of the potential slur, as well as the impossible standard than people of color with aimilar jobs are held to, I find it pretty hard to feel bad for him. Calling this a “witch hunt” implies that there’s some nefarious scheme (by anti-racists?) against the man, when in fact what happened is that his employer made a smart business decision given the negative publicity. If white dudes are ocassionally held to task for this sort of thing, it means they’ve joined the rest of us who are so frequently fired (or not hired) for things like our dialect.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 9:55 am

    I was struck by the use of "promise" with reference to a past action, which I think of as a British usage.

  9. Ricardo said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 11:07 am

    If '(King+Junior = c**n [kun]) is a classic anticipatory blending error', can anyone find recorded examples of a very similar error? While the explanation is not inconceivable, I have never heard anyone make that particular mistake or really anything like it, which is odd since 'Junior' shows up in many names.

    [(myl) Some similar vowel perseveration errors from the UCLA corpus: "I'm going to talk to my lawyer" -> "I'm going to talk to my liar"; "the whole planning process as you know" -> "the whole planning process as you knew"; "beef noodle soup" -> "beef needle soup"; "Have you given your paper a title" -> "Have you given your paper a tater"; "if the juices fill the space" -> "if the juices fool the space"; "The July 8th meeting was our regular monthly meeting" -> "The July 8th meeting was our regular menthly meeting".

    This doesn't rule out the possibility of a "Freudian slip" explanation. But the general observation is that most speech errors do not appear to represent the leakage of unconscious attitudes.]

  10. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 11:48 am

    Linguistics aside (we're in HR territory now), what about the following?:

    (1) Let's impute a baseline of rationality to the actor;
    (2) What does he stand to lose or gain from tossing out one of the top three racial slurs against one of the top three, and probably the most beloved, civil rights leaders in American history ON NATIONAL TELEVISION, and then immediately denying that it was his intention to do so?

    This is why we have HR investigations and not knee-jerk trials by social media. Would a "real" racist be more likely to be caught saying "coon" on air, or in the break room, or to a friend at a bar after work?

  11. EthanG said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

    I don't think anyone (that I know of) is trying to claim that he deliberately used a slur on national television. The assumption is that he DOES use the slur in reference to MLK with his friends at the bar, and therefore his common usage slipped out unintended on-air.

    Not trying to dispute your point of how the station should have handled it; I just don't think that "Using that slur on-air would be monumentally stupid" is any kind of defense.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

    For me, a witch hunt suggests a coordinated effort against many victims, and in particular accusing people and coercing them into accusing others.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 2:32 pm

    Nicole — "a smart business decision" ? I would have thought (and hoped) that fairness to one's employees was infinitely more important than mere business decisions, smart or otherwise.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 2:52 pm

    I think the metaphorical extended sense of "witch hunt" has gotten unhelpfully muddled between a "witchcraft accusations are bad because there aren't actually any such things as witches" metaphor and a "witchcraft accusations are bad because there's nothing actually wrong with witches — they're just misunderstood neo-pagans who ought to be left in peace" metaphor. But I'm puzzled by the notion that "witch hunt" is a highly gendered metaphor. I would think it was the other way around — witches were and are prototypically female whereas the targets of a metaphorical witch hunt can equally well be of either sex.

    Separately, I don't know if there's really good corpus-type data out there on generational trends in slurs and other taboo vocabulary, but the racial-slur sense of "coon" has an archaic "period" flavor to my ear, such that I would expect bigots of Mr. Kappell's apparent age to be more likely to use other slurs when using taboo vocabulary in private. Although it's possible that my ear doesn't spend enough time in the relevant unsavory circles to be well-attuned on this topic. It also seems at least modestly unlikely that bigots in that generational cohort would frequently sit around using the same nasty nicknames for MLK as bigots of 50+ years ago did. Unless they're the bigot-world equivalent of historical reenactors you'd think they'd spend more time using taboo-word nicknames for Barack Obama or Al Sharpton or some such more contemporary figure. But these are empirical questions and I don't know if you can get good data on them.

  15. Chandra said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 6:37 pm

    It boggles my mind that people find it in any way more plausible that this person knowingly used a racial slur on public television – and/or frequently spends his free time specifically talking shit about MLK in private to the point that it has become an unconscious reflex – than they are willing to see this as a very obvious and common type of speech error.

    I am a member of a marginalized minority as well, and this kind of thing frustrates me so much because it takes attention and energy away from things like ACTUAL systemic racism that should be taking priority. All this sort of thing does is make people dig their heels in further and gives them more excuses to ignore real issues of discrimination when they do occur.

  16. Ricardo said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 8:27 pm

    @“[(myl) Some similar vowel perseveration errors from the UCLA corpus…”]

    While there is a long list of vowel pereveration errors available, I think that for Kapell's defense it would be more interesting to see one involving the word 'Junior'.

  17. D.O. said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 9:03 pm

    J.W.Brewer, I think "witch hunt" metaphor is based not on witches' nonexistence or their benignness, but on the understanding that during the historic witch hunts, at least as related to modern audiences, the "hunters" lost any sense of proportion and judgement both in the standards of evidence and in punishment. In that sense, a single act of unjust punishment cannot be a "witch hunt", but of course, it can be a part of it.

  18. Rick Rubenstein said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 9:48 pm

    I find it unlikely that "coon" as a slur would even have a place in Kappell's "access without thinking" vocabulary. It feels wrong for what I perceive as his demographic.

  19. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 7:42 am

    I am surprised to see "whither it's an endowment" listed as an error, since that's what I would say all the time… (apart from the fact that I never talk about endowments, of course).

  20. Derwin McGeary said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 8:13 am

    I'm reminded of the infamous "Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary" spoonerism. The BBC Radio 4 presenters, at least in my imagination, certainly don't use the C-word habitually, but there was a miniature outbreak as everyone tried not to say it and some failed.


  21. Philip Taylor said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 8:30 am

    Aye, ye micht well, lassie, but I dinna ken if mony ithers wull ken why ……

  22. Trogluddite said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 1:32 pm

    Thankyou, those are my sentiments exactly. I too belong to a marginalised group; one with an employment rate of around 30% (here in the UK), of which only half are employed full-time. A vastly greater proportion are both able and willing to work. It is also a group of people often "outed" very easily by their linguistic traits. The name of this group has repeatedly been uttered as a slur by senior politicians, business people, and "celebrities" (among many others) in recent years, none of whom, as far as I am aware, has suffered any lasting consequence.

    However, hounding a person out of their job when there is plenty of reasonable doubt whether their transgression was intentional, is not "holding someone to task" (as Nicole Holliday put it) – it is catching people who may be potential allies in the crossfire, and demonstrates a very weak commitment to the justice and equality which people thus inclined claim to be fighting for. It is not something I would want anyone doing purportedly in my name.

    To my mind, the weatherman in question has been treated as a sacrificial lamb for the sake of his employer's reputation, and their action does nothing to prevent said employer (or any other) from continuing to use "smart business decisions" to conceal the kind of routine institutional prejudice which never elicits anything like such a vitriolic reaction from "internet activists". If anything, the knee-jerk dismissal just encourages me to believe that it is the employer, not the ex-employee, who has something to hide.

    @Derwin Geary
    The difference in the Jeremy Hunt case is that he *is* quite commonly referred to by that epithet, both colloquially by those who dislike his politics, and, as acknowledged by many journalists, in newsrooms. The "splicing error" explanation thus seems rather more disingenuous in this case. Though I'm not keen on the man myself, I was heartened to see Mr. Hunt take the incident with such good humour; and I'm glad that all but a small minority managed to see the funny side rather than clamouring for heads to roll.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 2:24 pm

    Chandra, Trogluddite — thank you both so much for contributing such excellent common sense. Very very heartening to read. As regards Mr Hunt, even my former GPs have been known to use that particular epithet, and they are not normally inclined to swear in public …

  24. Richard West said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 3:26 pm

    Philip Taylor: "I would have thought (and hoped) that fairness to one's employees was infinitely more important than mere business decisions, smart or otherwise."

    Interesting, do you really think customer-facing employees should not be fired or otherwise reprimanded for making mistakes that upset or offend customers as long as the employee claimed that it was unintentional? I've never worked in any institution (and possibly never observed one) where that has been the mindset. I generally agree that this firing seems premature and excessive, but one of the primary responsibilities of being on live local news is not saying offensive things, and he failed to do that pretty spectacularly.

  25. Michael Watts said,

    January 11, 2019 @ 3:56 pm

    For me, a witch hunt suggests a coordinated effort against many victims, and in particular accusing people and coercing them into accusing others.

    Interesting. I wouldn't have thought it suggested either coordination or flipping. Take the daycare panics, which featured criminal accusations of things like participating in Satanic rituals and flying through the air on broomsticks, and can therefore be seen as "witch hunts" in a fairly literal sense. They weren't coordinated. They didn't rely on busting a low-level witch flunky and getting her to incriminate a more nefarious, higher-ranking witch cabal.

    I would have thought a metaphorical "witch hunt" was characterized by one or both of these features:

    – Being accused is considered evidence of guilt.

    – Defending someone else who may have been erroneously accused of witchcraft is considered evidence that you are, yourself, a witch.

    Non-metaphorical witch hunts require those features because witches don't exist. But the general pattern is considerably more widespread, and this is what I thought was being criticized by the term "witch hunt".

  26. eub said,

    January 12, 2019 @ 2:55 am

    This firing is driven by white fragility more than by any kind of anti-racist agenda. Or at least, I have not yet seen actual anti-racist organizations calling for the firing — have you?

    The company is deathly afraid that somebody is gonna call them racist, so they jettison this guy. Certain folks fantasize that this climate of crazed fear is what the liberals want, but it is not. The anxiety acts as a continuous deflection away from the real job of noticing your routine structural racist biases, and the OH MY GOD SOMEBODY IS CALLING ME RACIST HOW DARE THEY freakout is a high-grade deflection and deterrent to trying any conversation.

  27. stephen said,

    January 12, 2019 @ 12:43 pm

    In the audio, it sounds to me like "kung".

    I read this anecdote in one of David Gerrold's books on Star Trek.

    One of the producers, Gene L. Coon, had a black secretary, who would sometimes introduce herself to visitors with, "Hi, I'm Gene L's Coon."

    A little further off-topic…I met somebody whose last name is Nigro. He told me it's an Italian name, and it's pronounced to rhyme with "High-grow."

    He doesn't look either Italian or African-American.

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    January 12, 2019 @ 5:40 pm

    Richard W ("do you really think customer-facing employees should not be fired or otherwise reprimanded for making mistakes that upset or offend customers as long as the employee claimed that it was unintentional?"). Yes, that is exactly what I think. A mistake is a mistake, an accident, something unintentional. We all make them, and the world goes on. Some mistakes are more serious than others (a nurse injecting 5cl of a sedative rather than 5ml, for example), but a slip of the tongue is surely amongst the most minor mistakes a person can make. Consider the other end of the spectrum — suppose Mr Kappell had, on air (or even off-air, if overheard) deliberately referred to one of his colleagues as "that coon", or "that nigger". Would I defend him then ? Of course not. But to accidentally mis-pronounce Martin Luther King's surname in a way that some interpret as sounding very much like "coon", whilst regrettable, is most certainly not grounds for dismissal, and (IMHO) not even grounds for a formal caution; having made the mistake once, Mr Kappell will most certainly not need reminding by the powers-that-be that this is an accident which must never occur a second time..

  29. Viseguy said,

    January 12, 2019 @ 8:03 pm

    If I were on a jury of his peers, I'd believe him (ceteris paribus).

  30. Trogluddite said,

    January 13, 2019 @ 12:32 pm

    @Richard West
    It is not that the benefit of the doubt should be extended just because the employee *claims* that their infraction was unintentional, rather that we should always examine whether there is credible evidence to the contrary. That the "slip of the tongue" excuse has been used where there are very good reasons to doubt the claimant's sincerity is not in doubt, but I think we should be very wary of this inducing cynicism about all such claims.

  31. Trogluddite said,

    January 13, 2019 @ 1:48 pm

    I would generalise your first point even further and say that many humans, whether of a disadvantaged minority group or not, find that their place in the world leaves them feeling bored, overwhelmed, bewildered, isolated, and/or ineffectual, and some counter the feeling that the social environment is largely indifferent to them by taking up internet vigilantism. Without meaning to condone such behaviour at all; it is popular because it fulfils an unmet need of the participants, which need may lie anywhere between altruism and selfishness. The internet has simply made a nice warm dopamine hit much easier to access on demand; it provides the convenient illusion that one has had a greater effect than one really has; and it does this all without the inconvenient risks associated with a commitment to genuine activism!

    @eub "I have not yet seen actual anti-racist organizations calling for the firing"
    This is something I see very often in disability rights campaigns; many appear to be organised by people who are well-meaning but who are not members of the community who they are acting for and who have a very poor understanding of what that community's priority issues are. To take a linguistic example; my experience is that "person-first" language and euphemistic idioms (e.g. "mobility impaired") are widely disliked by the people to whom they refer, regardless of claims by "experts" outside those communities who proscribe that such speech is more respectful.

  32. Philip Taylor said,

    January 13, 2019 @ 2:40 pm

    Trogluddite — May I ask whether, in your mind, the people who take up internet vigilantism include those who appear to take a perverse delight in ruling out of order various seemingly intelligent and well-motivated questions on Stack Exchange ? I ask because that one aspect of Stack Exchange, far more than any other, causes me to refuse to take any part in what might otherwise be a useful resource.

  33. David Marjanović said,

    January 13, 2019 @ 3:06 pm

    In the audio, it sounds to me like "kung".

    The recording is bad enough that I had to listen maybe 10 times to be sure that the corrected King ends in [ŋ]. After listening another 20 times or something, I'm pretty sure the syllable before it ends in [n], not [ŋ], so this particular line of defense might not work. I don't think it should be necessary, though.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    January 13, 2019 @ 4:24 pm

    To my British ear, I hear "Martn Luther Coon <pause> King Junior <pitch-shift> Park". But what I hear, and what he intended to say, may be two completely different things. And what he intended to say is surely what matters.

  35. derek said,

    January 14, 2019 @ 12:55 pm

    Really beginning to dislike the word "interesting".

  36. Trogluddite said,

    January 14, 2019 @ 2:53 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    I have been discouraged from creating a Stack Overflow account for much the same reason; my impression of it is that it is a very unfriendly place. I don't think there's anything particularly new about there being a significant minority of coders who proselytise about their preferred language, algorithms, platforms, or code formatting styles; there were heated arguments about where one's braces should be placed long before I first fired up BASIC. I sometimes wonder whether some programmers fall into the trap of believing the common stereotype that we are innately more rational than other human beings! However, I do think that StackOverflow's design encourages such people to police other users excessively, and to selectively apply the letter of the rules rather than apply the spirit of them without prejudice.

    The intent, as I understand it from Jeff Atwood's writing about the genesis of StackOverflow, was that the ratings systems would be dispassionate means for the best advice to become most prominent, and that only matters of fact, not opinion, would be debated. That's all well and good in theory, but to me it seems naive not to have anticipated that some people would see the ratings systems as a reflection of their personal or professional esteem, and that there are many "best" practices which are not clearly superior in all situations (especially when working within externally imposed constraints, as is hardly unusual either for professionals or hobbyists.)

    I find most distasteful a kind of patronising dismissiveness that I often see there; "well, if you need to ask that, what are you even doing here?". While I understand that StackOverflow was intended for working professionals, it is a rapidly changing industry and will always need new blood, and it's hardly surprising that students or hobbyists who aspire to work professionally might want to participate. Treating potential new colleagues with derision is most definitely not what I would call a "best working practice"!

  37. Trogluddite said,

    January 14, 2019 @ 3:02 pm

    Interestingly enough, I've actually been making a conscious effort lately to avoid using "interesting" and its declensions quite so much, as I was annoying myself with the frequency with which was elbowing its way into my verbal and written output (too much Mr. Spock as a child, maybe?)

    "Actually" is next on my list! ;-)

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    January 14, 2019 @ 4:01 pm

    Can one make an unconscious effort, Trogluddite ?!

  39. Trogluddite said,

    January 17, 2019 @ 1:34 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    Touche! That's another one to add to my hit list!

  40. Derwin McGeary said,

    January 20, 2019 @ 3:36 pm

    Well, it's happened again:

    The Hunt priming effect: thinking "don't say c**n" makes you more likely to say it accidentally?

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