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Obama vs. Osama

Is it a slip of the tongue when newscasters & presidential candidates say “Osama” instead of “Obama”?

Jeff Bercovici, who blogs for Portfolio, called me last week to clear up the question after CNN’s Glenn Beck made the slip. Was this a sign of some unconscious equating of Obama with terrorists?

Bercovici’s piece was posted on my birthday. I recommend reading the piece, in which Bercovici quotes me amply and accurately, but also because the comments (from obvious supporters of Obama) indicate quite remarkably the confusion about slips of the tongue and what they mean. In this case, it indicates to these supporters that there’s a persistent, well-coordinated campaign to smear Obama. To me, the slip is a perfectly nonanomalous error.

I posted this comment on the site as well:

You can tell whatever political story you like, but the plain fact is that though the slip misserves your candidate, you haven’t provided any evidence of any plan, intention, or directive by any campaign to replace “Obama” with “Osama” — and I do not think any of the posters are claiming that CNN is in cahoots with Mitt Romney. (Are you?)

This isn’t to say that real, honest slips of the tongue don’t, or won’t, have historical or political consequences. And I’m not saying that propagandists don’t work (and succeed) by deliberately mislabeling. But I hope the historians of the future will be smart enough to consider the linguistic story before they embrace what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics in order to tell the political story they would want to tell anyway.

If you want to begin to convince me that this is a deliberate plan to smear Obama by intentionally saying “Osama,” you might start by showing that all of these speakers (Beck, Romney, & Cho) make many fewer slips of the tongue in general. I haven’t done this and don’t plan to, but if you were to actually count their slips, you would probably find that they occur within a range consistent with people who produce a lot of speech in high-pressure situations. In other words, if they only mess up Obama’s name and no one else’s, then you might have an argument. I doubt this is the case.

This slip does your candidate a disservice, but it’s not linguistically anomalous.

I might have also added that I’m talking about slips of the tongue, not miswritten headlines or captions. Even those are signs of human incompetence, though, not conspiratorial malevolence. And I do believe former is more richly documented than the latter.