Newscasters have been stepping timidly around the latest linguistic landmine: mixing up the names of Osama bin Laden with President Barack Obama. However, over the past four days, since news broke that a special team of Navy SEALS had killed bin Laden, the confusion has been mainly restricted to one side: “Obama bin Laden.”
Obviously, the two words are incredibly close in spelling, and the two men are now inextricably linked in the world’s view, but it turns out the wording is not some latent, subconscious melding of the two men, but an actual physiological confusion based on the structure of bin Laden’s name. Salon spoke to a number of linguistic professors to understand the process. Harriet Klein, a professor of communicative sciences and disorders at New York University, said it can be chalked up to a lingual assimilation. We know that a “B” is somewhere in Osama bin Laden’s name and we anticipate making that sound, plus making a “B” sound is much less complex than an “S.”
Calling President Obama, President Osama could not be chalked up to this same assimilation, Klein warned, but most Osama/Obama gaffes, do fall into the “Obama bin Laden” category.
Still, the mistake remains an awkward one to make. So slow your tongue roll before talking about bin Laden.