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February 6th, 2008

Obama and Osama / first annual

by Barbara Wallraff

OK, the names “Obama” and “Osama” are one letter apart. Could everybody please just get used to it? “Bush” and “Bust” are one letter apart too. And “Bush” and “Lush.” So what? We have only 26 letters to work with, and English doesn’t take advantage of all possible combinations of them. Coincidences happen.

The “Obama/Osama” coincidence has been the subject of a few recent news stories, because some commonly used versions of Microsoft Word’s spell-checker flag “Obama” and suggest replacing it with “Osama.” Well, of course. Barack Obama wasn’t a household name until the current U.S. election cycle; Osama bin Laden has preoccupied the world since 2001. Spell-checkers don’t follow current events and think about them, any more than, for instance, dictionaries do.

Actually, I’m impressed that my version of Word, from 2003, makes the suggestion “Osama.” None of my four current dictionaries, published from 2003 to 2006, contain “Osama” or “bin Laden” -- let alone “Obama.” Besides, Word’s suggestion is nothing more than that. The spell-checker won’t make the change unless I ask it to. It will let me add “Obama” to its word list, so the squiggly line under the name will go away. It will even let me turn it off. Spell-checkers -- like dictionaries and, for that matter, the English language itself -- leave the thinking and decision-making to us. That’s the way it should be.

About 20 years ago I was waiting in a grocery checkout line with two items in my basket. To give myself something to do, I added up what the things cost, which was, let’s say, $9.86. I got a $10 bill, a dime and a penny out of my wallet, so that I could get a nice, round quarter back from the cashier. She took my money, rang the amount into the cash register and started to hand me 19 cents in change. I said, “I gave you the coins so I’d get a quarter back.” She checked the display on the register and replied, “That’s not how it came out.”

It shocked me then that someone whose job it was to handle money would be so hopelessly dependent on a machine. She needed my help to do the arithmetic for herself. Now I’m starting to worry that something similar is happening with people and language. If so, I guess it will keep me in work. Why doesn’t the prospect make me glad?

Norinne Daly, of Old Town, Maine, writes: “I have always been told that there is no such thing as a ‘first annual’ event. Only after an event has been held can there be a ‘second annual’ one and so on. Has this changed? I grit my teeth when I see that our local area will have a ‘first annual film festival’!”

Dear Norinne: I’ve heard that objection to “first annual” more than once, and I must admit, it puzzles me. The folks putting on a “first annual” event are declaring their intention to hold another of the same every year. If a young couple told me they’d just celebrated their first wedding anniversary, I wouldn’t say, “Excuse me -- you’re incorrect. That was only an anniversary. It won’t be your first until you’ve had another one.” This is like that, it seems to me.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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