Why we keep calling Osama “Obama”

Linguists and speech pathologists explain why we constantly make this mistake -- but not the other way around

Topics: Osama Bin Laden, Barack Obama,

Why we keep calling Osama "Obama"

“Obama bin Laden”: The gaffe has been made so frequently by so many media outlets over the past few days  (including Salon) that it has almost become an idiosyncrasy of the bin Laden death story.

It is tempting to read too much into the conflation (are you calling the president a terror leader?) or  to look past it entirely (the names sound similar, big deal). But we contacted linguists and speech pathologists to glean more about the mechanisms that might be behind the mix-up.

Adam Buchwald, an assistant professor of communicative sciences and disorders at NYU:

Typically, the more similar or related two words are, the more likely they are to be substituted for one another. This similarity/relatedness can be phonological (i.e., sound-based) or semantic (i.e., meaning-based), and there is some evidence that similarity along both dimensions increases the chance of these lexical errors …

Names are typically odd in this respect as they don’t have any inherent meaning. Nevertheless, confusing two names that are similar sounding about people who are connected in some way can certainly arise as an honest error.

Matt Goldrick, an associate professor of linguistics at Northwestern:

When recalling the sounds of words, we also unconsciously retrieve other words that are similar in sound … Obama-Osama is a perfect storm for the mental process of word retrieval. These two names share lots of sounds, including the same first sound, are the same length and are typically pronounced as having the same stressed vowel …

On top of their similar sounds, it’s likely that the similar ‘roles’ Obama and Osama have played (as geopolitical figures) contribute to these mistakes. Research has shown that people tend to mis-name celebrities, they make confusions related to their social roles — for example, calling President Kennedy “President Reagan.” But this doesn’t mean that when people make these errors they think Kennedy and Reagan have similar ideas — it just means that they were both president.

Interestingly, Harriet Klein, a professor of communicative sciences and disorders also at NYU, pointed out the difference in calling Osama “Obama” to calling Obama “Osama.”



Most of the flubs this week have involved calling bin Laden “Obama,” and there is physiological accounting for this. In a process known as assimilation, Klein explained, we anticipate the “B” from “bin Laden” and this influences the “s” in “Osama” to turn into a “b” (“Obama”). “And ‘b’ is a much less complex sound to form than ‘s’,” said Klein.

The other way round, however, there’s no such physiological explanation. “It seems more derogatory to call Barack ‘Osama’ …  It feels almost more psychological,” said Klein.

The recent mistakes, therefore, being almost entirely examples of calling bin Laden “Obama,” may well be explicable as examples of assimilation. But as Buchwald noted, “one important caveat here is that this does not mean that all such ‘errors’ are unintended.”

And just in case you haven’t seen them, we’ve compiled some of the most noteworthy of the Osama-Obama gaffes:

Following President Obama’s announcement of the al-Qaida leader’s death Sunday night, an anchor for New York-based Fox 5 said, “President Obama is in fact dead,” before correcting himself after some prompting.

Geraldo Rivera on Fox News announced that Obama is dead:

Sacramento’s Fox 40 made the gaffe in writing:

 As did the BBC:

And CNN.com:

This anchor stated that “Obama made killing Obama a No. 1 priority”:

And on Twitter, MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell, CBS’s Mark Knoller and NPR’s Peter Sagal all called the al-Qaida leader “Obama”:

To be sure, the name gaffe is by no means a phenomenon unique to this week of bin Laden-heavy headlines. In 2007, Mitt Romney repeatedly invoked the name of then-Sen. Obama to refer to bin Laden: 

And unlike the above examples, which could fit within an explanation from assimilation, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy went all out and called Obama “Osama bin Laden”– which would take some pathologizing to account for indeed:

 

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>