Many of us grew up being taught that there’s only one correct way to speak our native language, and that people who don’t speak like us demonstrate a deplorable lack of culture or education. As such, dialect speakers are commonly characterized as being of lower intelligence or just plain lazy, and this characterization is often used to stigmatize members of certain racial, ethnic, or national groups. In particular, linguistic arrogance has historically been a tool wielded by racists to foster a stereotype of Blacks as unintelligent, lazy objects of fun.
An urban legend about a game show contestant fits this pattern, one in which a laugh comes at the expense of a Black game show contestant whose speech patterns trap him into making the wrong word association. His chance to earn some easy money is blown because he talks differently than the show’s (white) celebrities and audience. Not only does he lose the cash, he’s also roundly laughed at. His humiliation is crushing and immediate, and he attempts to strike back by suing over his embarrassment:
Someone told me that on an old episode of Password hosted by Allen Ludden — late husband of Betty White, if I’m not mistaken — that McLean Stevenson and the contestant got the word “bread” as a password. McLean used the word “dough” as a clue, and the contestant, who was African-American, answered “knob” — as in “dough knob.”
It was said that the contestant attempted to sue the show when it aired unedited, complete with uproarious laughter from the audience and celebrities alike.
As with most broadcast legends, legions of commenters are certain they saw this event play out on TV, even if the details they recall conflict with those offered by others who are equally sure they witnessed it:
“I saw the episode! I was in junior high and was watching it when it occurred. Tom Selleck was the star and there was a large African-American woman as the “regular” person. He said “doe” and she said knob. This actually happened.”
Descriptions of this game show boo-boo bear all the hallmarks of an apocryphal event: There is no agreement on details such as when it took place, which show it occurred on (“Password,” “Super Password,” “The $10,000 Pyramid,” and “The $25,000 Pyramid” are all frequently mentioned)*, who the celebrity giving the clues was (Alan Alda, Mike Farrell, McLean Stevenson, and Tom Selleck are the names most often given), or even the gender of the non-celebrity contestant. And it typically ends with the stock folkloric “humiliation” ending of the hapless contestant’s suing the show’s producers.
Its racial aspects aside, this legend also propagates the mistaken linguistic notion that people cannot recognize dialectal pronunciations that differ from their own. A person who pronounces the words “earl” and “oil” as homophones isn’t necessarily incapable of distinguishing between those two words when he hears them spoken by someone who doesn’t pronounce them as homophones. Likewise, a person who pronounces the words “doe” and “door” identically doesn’t necessarily assume that anyone who says “doe” really means “door” instead.
Actor Jamie Farr (yet another “M*A*S*H” alum) propagated this legend in a first-person account found in his autobiography “Just Farr Fun”:
An all-time favorite “Super Password” show happened on the watch of host Bert Convy. I was in a bonus round that had escalated to an all time high of $50,000. My partner was a Black woman who had won her way into this bonus round with me. We were both pretty keyed up. After all, a $50,000 prize on this show was very rare.
So now we begin. Behind her, I could see a list of 10 words. Behind me, she could see a series of letters. My job: to feed her 10 rapid-fire clues that would trigger in her the right 10 words, all in 60 seconds. If the first word was “daughter,” I might say, “Son?” If the second word was “car,” I might say “Cadillac.” If the third word was “salt,” I might say, “pepper?”
So, I look up and I see the first word on our list is “deer.” She sees, behind me, the letter “D.” Now I could have said, “Animal.” But if I wanted to be more specific, I might have said, “Antelope?” Instead, quick-like, I say, “Doe.” I was thinking of that song in “The Sound of Music,” do, a doe [sic], a female deer.
But she comes back, just as quick, with, “Knob.”
I blink. “Doe … knob?” Well, aside from the fact that “knob” doesn’t begin with a “d,” I didn’t say “door.” I said “doe.” But she heard “door.” I couldn’t go on. I just started to laugh so hard that Convy had to restrain me. The audience was dying. The only who didn’t know what was happening was the contestant. But Convy and I had to compose ourselves, and just try to go on. Needless to say, we didn’t win the $50,000. But the producers really loved that show and talked about it for years. It provided more laughs than if we had sailed through it without a hitch. They should have given us the $50,000 on the side.
An entertaining story, full of detail and told convincingly. There’s one little problem with it, though: “Super Password” with Bert Convy debuted on Sept. 24, 1984, yet this very same story was described in a Sports Illustrated article that hit the stands three weeks before the show’s first episode aired:
“Once, Nipsey Russell was on Password, and the password was ‘deer.’ His partner gave him ‘doe’ as a clue, and Russell guessed ‘knob.'”
This legend also turns up in a 2000 (nonfiction) book about Las Vegas, offered not as a true story but as an “Ebonics joke” one wealthy gambler tells another at the Luxor:
“Did you hear the joke about ebonics?” the shorter one asked Carill in a booming voice. “Two blacks are on that television game show, Password, and the secret word is deer, so this one says ‘doe’ as his clue, and his partner looks at him and says: ‘knob.'”
That “joke” may be a revealing one about the thematic origins of this tale — it’s likely no coincidence that this legend rose to prominence around the same time that the publicity surrounding the Oakland School District controversy of 1996 made the term “Ebonics” widely known across the U.S.
*(Although the incident as described is plausible for “Password,” it makes little or no sense as an anecdote about “The $10,000 Pyramid” or one of its higher-priced incarnations.)