And why do you say Bush when you mean Gore? From pundits on television to people at the water cooler, everyone is substituting the name of one candidate for the other.
To linguists this slip of the tongue is called a semantic substitution or a lexical access slip. It’s easy to understand why it is happening. The brain organizes information across many categories, and Bush and Gore, the men and the names, nicely fit next to each other in the same slots.
- Both men are presidential candidates, so when trying to call up the name of one of them, the other is naturally signaled. This is why parents often call their children by each other’s names.
- Both are attractive white men in their 50s. There wasn’t so much categorical confusion about Reagan and Carter.
- Information we get about one always refers to the other. And often the information is similar, i.e. making speeches in four states in 24 hours.
- Though they have different positions, they are not speaking across a cavernous ideological divide, like Nixon and McGovern, which helps the brain create separate categories.
- Both names have one syllable. The number of syllables a word has and its stress patterns–where the emphasis falls when you pronounce a word–are a major feature of how the mental dictionary is structured. That meant confusing the names Clinton and Bush was less likely.
- The names are similar phonetically. Both begin with what is called a voice-stopped consonant, of which there are three in English: B, D,G. And the vowel sounds of each are what’s known as back-rounded vowels, of which there are four.
- Both words have four letters, and many people visualize words in their written form.
This confusion will lessen as one man gets his own category in our brains: president of the United States.
Explainer thanks Robert Rodman of North Carolina State University, Steven Pinker of MIT, and Merrill Garrett of the University of Arizona.