Making our familiars listener with the Brefit rexerendum

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"Senate Finds Russian Bots, Bucks Helped Push Brexit Vote Through", NPR Weekend Edition 1/19/2019:

A recent report on Russian influence operations overseas detailed large amounts of money and effort spent to influence the referendum. Scott Simon talks with The New Yorker's Jane Mayer.

Uncharacteristically for a professional speaker, Scott Simon commits two interesting speech errors in his short parts of this short (3:44) interview.

The first error is a consonant anticipation — meaning to say "Brexit referendum", he starts out with "Brefit" (= /'brɛ.fɪt/):

Russia has been accused of meddling in the twenty sixteen U.S. elections
and the twenty sixteen Brefit- Brexit referendum

Since he corrects himself before completing the phrase, it's possible that this was an exchange, in which he had "Brefit rexerendum" queued up before he noticed the error and stopped, rather than the anticipation "Brefit referendum".  But in either case, one element of the error is the intervocalic consonant cluster /ks/ in "Brexit", which is replaced by the single consonant /f/ from a prosodically analogous place in the word "referendum". This is a plausible but (I think) relatively rare type of error.

Then a few words later, there's a morpheme anticipation (or an aborted morpheme exchange). He intends the phrase "make our listeners familiar", but starts out "make our familiars":

um we've certainly tried to make our familiars- uh our- our listeners familiar with the- uh
the allegations about internet trolls and misinformation and
Russian disinformation in the U.S. elections.
What about Russia's role in the twenty sixteen vote
in Bre- Brexit vote?

Here the plural noun listeners is replaced by the following adjective familiar, which is given the plural inflection belonging to the noun. Again, this is a plausible but relatively rare sort of error. Simon then trips over Brexit again, repeating the first syllable as if he perhaps started to say "Brefit" again.

None of these errors have a very convincing "Freudian slip" explanation as the inadvertent leakage of unconscious truths — though I'm not nearly as ingenious in crafting such stories as Freud was.

Mr. Simon's reference to "our familiars" might be thought to identify NPR listeners as the familiar spirits of the witches that Robert Mueller is said by some to be hunting. And maybe that makes a sort of dreamworld sense, with the media audience as the magical spirit enablers of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump's enchantments.

But "Brefit"? I'm at a loss, and leave it to our commenters to imagine what Sigmund might have done with that.

From a more standard modern psycholinguistic perspective, we might also say something about the repetition disfluencies of "our- our" and  "the- uh the" and "Bre- Brexit". I'll take that up in another post, with more examples from the interviewee in the same segment, like this one:

So it's- it's- i- it's interesting. It's much the same.



  1. Ian Preston said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 7:07 am

    The final error sounds more to me as if he found himself saying "the 2016 vote in Brexit" (perhaps having intended "vote on Brexit" or "vote in Britain" or something similar), realised that made no sense and reset it to "2016 Brexit vote".

  2. Rachael Churchill said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 9:03 am

    Lucky for him "Brefit" didn't happen to be a racial slur, or he could have been fired.

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 10:34 am

    I would guess that in the first instance it was anticipating the /f/ of "referendum". But there could also be a hesitation due to uncertainty about whether the x is /ks/ or /gz/.

  4. Theophylact said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 12:17 pm

    Yeah, funny: To me, it's almost always "egzit" and always "Brecksit". I wonder why.

  5. kltpzyxm said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 2:30 pm

    I think myl is correct that it is an anticipation or an exchange in progress, and the [rE] in 'Brexit' attracted the [rE] in 'referendum' because they are phonetically identical, helped by a similar trochaic stress pattern, and the [f] just got pulled along for the ride.

  6. Daniel H said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 4:51 pm

    @Rachel Churchill, That would happen to be a reference to this highly controversial (in China at least), but in my opinion equally innocuous and rather interesting slip of the tongue from NBA player and one time college villain JJ Redick?

  7. Chandra said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 6:11 pm

    @Daniel H – I presume the reference is to this:

  8. Chandra said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 6:20 pm

    I wonder if the anticipation in "Brefit" could have also been influenced by the preceding /ks/ in "sixteen", which the speaker's subconscious might have conflated with the one in "Brexit"?

    As for Freudian analysis, the only thing I can come up with is something along the lines of a referendum brefitting the Queen, but that seems as unlikely as NPR witchery.

  9. Mark314159 said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 8:52 pm

    Rather off-topic, but I found this headline from ‘The Sun’ ( ), pretty confusing. The number of words with negative connotation left my head spinning.


    But learning from the article that Rudd is “Pro-EU” helped me get the polarity of the sentence right.

  10. Anne Cutler said,

    January 21, 2019 @ 10:58 pm

    Re Brefit error: Speech error research offers two potentially relevant findings. First, blends are a very common type of error, especially when there is some phonetic overlap (e.g. Brexit and referendum share the vowel in all stressed syllables). Second, it is not that uncommon for speakers to skip a syllable or two and thus jump a bit ahead in an utterance. Error collections provide many examples ("it's a pritiotic idea" for "it's a pretty idiotic idea" in Fromkin's collection). For what it's worth, in a chapter several decades ago, I argued that such errors often resulted in a more regular speech rhythm than the intended utterance would have shown. But again, shared phonemes are often involved.
    In the present case, Simon highlights "and", adding emphasis to a parallel between "US elections" and the coming NP. Possibly he had not yet decided whether to say "referendum on Brexit" or "Brexit vote" or "Brexit referendum" or something else. "Breferendum" could have been about to come out as a blend (I hear the vowel that he uses after bref- as schwa, and different from the 2nd vowel he then uses in "Brexit"; and I can't hear whether the coronal ending as he stops to issue the correction is actually a [t] or is just where his tongue would have been anyway if he was inhibiting a stressed "re-"). Or maybe he just skipped from bre- to the sound after the next stressed [E], in ref-.
    Either way, I suspect that having the same vowel in the syllables of bre- ref- and ren- (not to mention lec- in elections, the first element of the parallel, too!) would definitely have played a role.

  11. Rachael Churchill said,

    January 22, 2019 @ 8:21 am

    Daniel H and Chandra, yes, I was referring to Jeremy Kappell's "coon" slip in Chandra's link.

  12. RP said,

    January 22, 2019 @ 11:09 am

    @Mark314159 ,
    It's highly unfortunate that the British media insists on using the term "no deal" without applying either hyphenation or quotes.
    A sentence should as "No deal is better than a bad deal" typically refers to "no-deal", i.e. an exit without a deal. Writing it unhyphenated is confusing because it could be read as meaning that there are no possible or available deals that are better than a bad one. This is just one of countless examples.
    In years to come, no one will understand any of it (if they even do now), thanks to the media's disregard for punctuation.

  13. Ed M said,

    January 22, 2019 @ 1:37 pm

    I sometimes hear "breakfast" pronounced "bref'ist".

  14. Trogluddite said,

    January 22, 2019 @ 3:29 pm

    Not quite a "Freudian" analysis, but I did wonder whether the repeated slip up may have been caused by 'semantic satiation'; that weird effect whereby repeating a word over and over again makes it seem to lose its identity as a word. If Mr. Simon routinely consumes UK media, I would not be surprised!

    Why "brecksit" rather than "breggsit"?
    Because Yorkshire folk find it amusing that this is also the local pronunciation of "breaks it", of course! ;-)

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