Ever since he came on the scene, Barack Obama has been accidentally called “Osama” (and vice versa) and there was a time that I took great umbrage at it. I was convinced that this represented some Freudian slip signifying a disdain for our 44th President.
Well, after the past week where the two most discussed personalities have been Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden, the Obama/Osama switcheroo occurred too many times for me to chalk it up to any ill intent. In fact, to my surprise, I found myself making the slip. So it was with great interest that I read an article that explained WHY we get Obama and Osama confused and it goes deeper than just the pronounced similarity in the sound of the two words.
Obviously, the words differ by a mere letter and have very similar pronunciations, which definitely contributes to the confusion, but the mix-up actually happens so often for a different reason: the syntactic category rule.
The syntactic category rule means that when two words are confused for one another the “target” (the word replaced) and the substituting word are almost always of the same syntactic category. In normal speak: nouns replace nouns, verbs replace verbs, and so on. If “Obama” were a verb instead of a noun (as in, the Democrats are going to Obama the GOP in 2012), we would be substantially less likely to confuse it with the noun “Osama.”
Of course the gaffe doesn’t just happen because both words are of the same part of speech. The speaker is also subject to what linguists call “priming.” Your brain makes certain words more accessible to your tongue when they resemble–in pronunciation, in meaning, in subject matter–words that you frequently hear. “Priming means that when you’ve been reading/hearing/thinking about hospitals, words like ‘doctor’ and ‘nurse’ will be recognized more quickly, and are also more likely to be substituted in a slip of the tongue,” Liberman explains. So hearing Osama and Obama in the same context makes your brain more apt to use them interchangeably in speech.
In addition to the fact that Obama and Osama sound alike, they are also proper nouns and they are both used in a political context. So all these similarities conspire to make our brain put the wrong word in our mouth. With one man dead and the other very much alive, this can result in some jarring gaffes.
The NBC show “30 Rock” warned us back during the 2007/2008 Democratic primary season of this slip of the tongue, with hilarious results.
Of course, similar sounding names can mess up not only your speech but your reading comprehension. I saw the following Atlantic Magazine article title and jumped to the wrong conclusion:
Dagan Thinks That Barak Is Crazy Enough to Strike Iran
I immediately thought to myself, who is this Dagan guy and why would he be nutty enough to believe that Obama would bomb Iran? I neglected to notice the absence of a “C” in the name “Barak”. It turns out Dagan is Meir Dagan former head of the Israeli Mossad and Barak is Ehud Barak the current Israeli Minister of Defense.
And so it goes. Our President’s name is ripe for confusion. We won’t even go into the misunderstandings arising from his middle name — Hussein.