From The New York Times to Fox News to your very own dinner table, people across the country and across the ideological spectrum have been making the Osama/Obama mistake: accidentally saying "Obama" instead of "Osama." At first it was confusing—receiving a text message on Sunday night that read "Obama is dead!" elicited a reaction very different from the alternative. But now it's just a big, embarrassing joke. See video montage below:
But maybe it's not so embarrassing. We spoke with University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman, who explained why the two names are so easily confused. 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."