Why do so many fall foul of the Hunt/cunt slip?

Many commentators and broadcasters have fallen foul of Jeremy Hunt’s name over the years. Some make light of the slip, some ignore it, others apologise profusely. Hunt himself has acknowledged the problems people have had with his surname over the years including teachers at school.

Some may see the Hunt/cunt slip as a Freudian mistake uncovering some unconscious dislike of the politician but modern psycholinguistics looks toward more prosaic explanations. Two of these are priming and the phonetic environment.

Priming

Priming is the idea that words which are heard or spoken by a subject become ‘primed’ in the mental lexicon and are then more easily accessed the next time they are needed. This enhanced lexical access might be only a fraction of a second but it becomes important in speech and slips of the tongue because the planning process is considered to be a competitive process that entails rapid lexical access. Similar words compete for selection and any word that has microseconds advantage over its competitors is more likely to be chosen, even if this is the wrong one. Most of the time the brain can detect the error before it is articulated but sometimes the intrusive error is spoken out loud. The subject then acts to repair the error overtly.  

A reporter talking about the Hunt/cunt slip in the morning, for example, might be inadvertently priming themselves for the slip in the afternoon when on air. Bizarrely the more we think about avoiding the slip, the more likely we are to make it. If you are a broadcaster planning to interview Jeremy Hunt and are reading this book, put it down!

Phonetic Environment

Another source of error is the phonetic environment—the sounds and words both before and after the target word that may intrude to induce an error. Jeremy Hunt is a member of the Conservative Party and was at one time the Culture Secretary, both terms which have a hard /k/ sound at the beginning, as the word ‘cunt’ does. Introducing the politician, for example, as ‘Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary’ would be fraught with danger because of the potential for phoneme exchange.

The name ‘Hunt’ itself does not have hard /k/ sound at the start so it is difficult to see how the name by itself could induce a slip. However, the given name ‘Jeremy’ does have a hard sound at the beginning (technically an affricate /ʤ/) which might be the source of the intrusion.

  • Jeremy Hunt    /ʤerɪmi hʌnt/

It is interesting to note that all the slips in the compilation below occurred when the speakers said the full name ‘Jeremy Hunt’. If this is the case, then a couple of strategies to avoid this slip might be to either introduce a filled pause in-between the given and family name, or to introduce him as ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Jeremy’:

  • Jeremy er Hunt
  • Mr Hunt

YouTube Jeremy CUNT ~ COMPILATION

Wired.co.uk article

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