“Let’s Go Brandon” and the Linguistic Jiujitsu of American Politics


During an interview with NASCAR driver Brandon Brown on October 2, 2021, NBC sports presenter Kelli Stavast made a curious observation. She reported that spectators at the Talladega Superspeedway chanted “Come on Brandon” to celebrate the racer’s first Xfinity Series victory.

In reality, however, the crowd was shouting a very different line: “Fk Joe Biden,” a taunt that had become popular at college football games earlier in the fall.

The deliberate misinterpretation of the crowd’s chant was a clever verbal sleight of hand on Stavast’s part. While she hasn’t explained herself publicly, it seems likely that she defused the obscene and politically charged epithet so as not to offend the sponsors and viewers of her network.

The phrase, however, quickly took on a life of its own. It provides an interesting example of how language and politics make strange bedfellows – for Conservatives and Liberals alike.

Make the unacceptable acceptable

Judging from tapes of the interview available online, it’s unlikely that Stavast misheard the crowd singing. If she had, her mistake would be classified as a green world, which is a slip of the tongue. Examples include poor hearing of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” such as “Hold me closer, Tony Danza”.

The enthusiastic adoption of the phrase by detractors of President Joe Biden suggests that “Come on Brandon” is best described as a hashed oath. These are euphemisms used in place of taboo or blasphemous expression.

Such oaths have a long history in English; a prime example is “Zounds”, a euphemism for “the wounds of God” which began to be used around 1600. 1930s, respectively.

Chopped oaths have also been widely used on television. In these cases, the goal is to bypass the constraints imposed by the norms and practices of a network, with certain terms used by the characters in place of secular language, whether it is “frack” in “Battlestar”. Galactica ”,“ fork ”in“ The Good Place ”or“ fudge ”in“ South Park ”. Even Homer’s oft-repeated cry of dismay – “D’oh!” – is a hashed oath for “shit”.

Resume language

The “Let’s go Brandon” phenomenon also illustrates the process of linguistic reappropriation or recovery.

Some Biden supporters turn the phrase into an expression of support for him. And alternatively, some of the President’s supporters began to utter “Thank you Brandon.”

This in itself is a reminder of the previous “Thank you, Obama”. Republicans have often used the phrase to sarcastically criticize the 44th President, but it was later re-appropriated by Democrats who used the phrase literally. The dizzying linguistic arms race ultimately rendered the expression meaningless.

Comedian Bill Maher jokes that President Biden is taking language ownership to the extreme.
Realtime with Bill Maher / YouTube

As with chopped oaths, there is an equally long history of insults adopted by disparaged groups.

During the English Civil Wars, for example, supporters of Parliament mocked Charles I’s supporters of “Cavaliers.” In a feat of verbal judo, the royalists adopted the nickname to refer to themselves. In doing so, they emptied the negative connotation of the epithet.

A similar process has occurred with the use of the word “queer”. Once a very offensive insult directed at homosexuals, the LGBTQ + community has embraced and rehabilitated it.

Several other cases of linguistic appropriation have recently occurred in American politics. A good example is “Nonetheless, she persisted.” Republican Senator Mitch McConnell first used it to berate Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, who read a letter from Coretta Scott King during a confirmation hearing after McConnell warned her not to do so.

Warren’s supporters quickly took hold of the slogan, proudly using it to celebrate women who resist silence. Chelsea Clinton went on to publish a series of books honoring women titled “She Persisted”.

Republicans have proven to be just as adept at this as Democrats. In 2016, when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that half of Donald Trump’s supporters could be put in a “deplorable basket,” the Trump campaign ran ads using her. Clinton’s words were broadcast over clips of admiring Trump supporters.

A universal phenomenon

These phenomena are not limited to American politics. Citizens of repressive societies use coded criticism as a means to challenge authority.

Following the crackdown on dissent after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, protesters in China smashed glass bottles in public places to protest leader Deng Xiaoping’s policies. Although the link is lost for those who do not know Chinese, “Xiaoping” and “little bottle” are pronounced the same in Mandarin.

NASCAR’s concern for its family-friendly image has led its president, Steve Phelps, to steer the organization away from the ongoing “Let’s Go Brandon” imbroglio. And a Southwest Airlines pilot is under investigation for using the term in flight.

Others, however, were happy to make use of the association. On November 18, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, insisted on signing bills banning COVID-19 vaccination warrants in an unincorporated community nearly 300 miles from the capital city of State.

Her name?

Brandon, Florida.

The man stands at the podium surrounded by supporters.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ decision to hold a bill signing ceremony in Brandon, Florida was no coincidence.
AP Photo / Chris O’Meara


About Author

Comments are closed.