Was it a misinterpretation? A well-meaning reporter’s deft attempt to avoid a Federal Communications Commission fine for airing “obvious profanity”? An example of the perfidious mainstream media’s pro-Democrat bias?
Or was it something else entirely?
Here’s what we know: On October 2, as 28-year-old racecar driver Brandon Brown was being interviewed about his winning race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, some people in the stands were chanting “Fuck Joe Biden!” (What provoked the political chant at a nonpolitical gathering? Unclear, but it had already been well documented, along with the #FJB hashtag, both on- and offline.)
NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast either heard or wanted to hear something different:
“Brandon, you also told me — as you can hear the chants from the crowd, ‘Let’s go, Brandon’ — Brandon, you told me you were gonna kinda hang back those first two stages and just watch and learn,” Stavast said.
Watch and learn, indeed. In the days and weeks that followed, “Let’s go, Brandon!” became a meme, a marketable slogan, and a right-wing code—“a tongue-in-cheek way of evading media censorship and public sensibilities – while still getting the point across to those in the know,” as the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher put it. Congressman Bill Posey (R-Florida) ended an October 21 speech on the House of Representatives floor with “Let’s go, Brandon! ” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) posed for a photo with someone holding a “Let’s go, Brandon!” sign. On October 29, a pilot on a Southwest flight from Houston to Albuquerque reportedly ended his greeting to passengers with “Let’s go, Brandon!” (An AP reporter on the flight tweeted that some passengers responded with “audible gasps.” The airline says it will investigate the incident.) At least three “Let’s Go, Brandon!” songs have been released, by Loza Alexander, Bryson Gray, and Forgiato Blow.
And of course there is merch. Note the FJB tag, which makes it clear that “Brandon” is a substitution.
Since this is a blog about language and not politics, I’m going to stay as neutral as I can, except to note that we’ve heard a lot of dirty talk from American politicians in the last five years, starting with Donald Trump’s “grab her by the pussy.” (More on pussy here.) We’ve also seen examples of taboo avoidance, such as the Tuck Frump spoonerism popular among Trump’s opponents and the You and Me LFG (let’s fucking go) slogan popularized by Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2020. But “Let’s Go, Brandon!” may be in a league of its own.
“Is there a term for this?” asked linguist Mark Liberman in a Language Log post about “Let’s Go, Brandon.” “Euphemism is certainly involved. But the fake (or even real) mis-hearing is kind of like a Mondegreen.”
The mishearing does qualify as a mondegreen, usually defined as a misinterpreted lyric. (“Excuse me while I kiss this guy,” for example, instead of “kiss the sky.”) But the way in which “Let’s go Brandon” has been appropriated suggests something else. Call it a shibboleth—a password; a winking, not-so-secret handshake that identifies fellow members of a political tribe.
A similar linguistic phenomenon—substituting innocuous terms for inflammatory language—has been going on in other corners of the angry right-wing ecosystem. In early 2020, when some websites began blocking references to the anti-government boogaloo movement, boogalooers morphed the name into big igloo and big luau, evading the censors. More recently, anti-vaccination groups have adopted code words on platforms like Facebook. NBC News reported in July 2021:
Group members have incorporated a range of coded language to mask their discussions, many of which perpetuate debunked theories about the vaccines. “Danced” or “drank beer” mean “got the vaccine.” References to “Pfizer” generally use the terms “pizza” or “Pizza King,” and Moderna is referred to as “Moana.” Users generally play around with unofficial language about dancing to create more coded language.
“Let’s go, Brandon” serves a related purpose. As a mishearing of “Fuck Joe Biden!” it seems like a stretch. Yes, the cadence is similar: two one-syllable words followed by a two-syllable word. Go rhymes with Joe, and Brandon and Biden begin with B and end with don/den. But you’d have to work hard to interpret fuck as let’s. To fans, though, that just makes the joke all the more hilarious. As the tech/entertainment site BGR put it last week: “Instead of dropping the f-bomb at the president like that crowd did, you can say this [phrase] instead—and people will know what you really mean.”
Ten years ago, one of the sharpest criticisms of the president was the sardonic “Thanks, Obama,” which became a series of GIFs, a couple of sub-Reddits, and even the title of a sincerely grateful book. “Let’s go, Brandon!” is its smirking, deceptively sunny counterpart.
Not that the actual Brandon Brown is letting it ruin his day.
To all the other Brandon’s out there, You’re welcome!
Let’s go us
— Brandon Brown (@brandonbrown_68) October 6, 2021
As for reporter Kelli Stavast, the source of the mondegreen, she has not commented publicly since the day of the race.
UPDATE, November 6: The Democrats are now reclaiming “Brandon” for their own purposes. Immediately after Congress passed the Biden Administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, late in the evening of November 5, the hashtag #ThankYouBrandon began trending on Twitter. Not long afterward, there was merchandise.
— MeidasTouch.com (@MeidasTouch) November 6, 2021