Why You Can't Avoid the Obama-Osama Mixup

Linguists say it's a natural effect of the syllables; but it might be racism

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It's happened everywhere. You want to crow about the U.S. triumph in finding and killing Obama -- rather, Osama bin Laden. If you make this mistake while out to drinks with your friends, it can be laughed off. If you make it on the the Web site for National Public Radio, it's a serious gaffe. But you were always going to make it.

Today, the Columbia Journalism Review and The Atlantic explained the science of why those particular syllables lend themselves to a mix-up. "Had his name been Osama Tin Laden, we likely would have seen a lot fewer Obama/Osama mixups," notes CJR. It all has to do with the way the brain stores and accesses information, says linguist Michael Erard.

“What is happening in that specific case … is that the speaker has anticipated the ‘b’ of Bin laden and moved it up to replace the ‘s’ in Osama,” he told me. “That is an anticipation error, where there is a string of sounds and the person basically jumps ahead in the string and selects one sound too soon and inserts it.”

Erard said people are even more likely to make this error because the name “Osama Bin Laden” is stored in our brains as one chunk, rather than as three unique items. This makes it more likely we’ll skip ahead to the “b” in Bin Laden without paying close attention to the first word in the chunk (Osama). This is true even if you are only planning to say “Osama.”

That mixup has started to work in Obama's favor now that Bin Laden is dead. The merchandising potential of "Obama got Osama" is just about limitless. But it's worth pointing out that not everyone is buying the explanation. African American news site News One ran a post today directly refuting Erard and his fellow linguists' claim. Alexis Garrett Stodghill writes:

Yes, Obama and Osama sound a lot alike. But the reason for the consistent confusion of these names by award-winning journalists, seasoned copyeditors, and political thought leaders is not that simple..... The overwhelmingly white news creators who confuse "Obama" with "Osama" are a sad reminder of the fact many still subconsciously believe “all brown people look alike.” This inability to notice the differences between people outside of one’s race is far more common than even liberal people want to admit.

So there's a feel-good explanation and a feel-bad one. We'll let you decide which one to pick.
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