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Why Can't I Read This Man's Name?

Every time I see the name Reince Priebus in the news my mind reads it as Prince Rebus. Every. Single. Time. Why is this happening???

- Rebused

Reinhold "Reince" Priebus is the chairman of the Republican party. Prince Rebus sounds more like the champion of a word-puzzle party. What makes you see one as the other? Maybe it's that the name Reince Priebus itself is a word puzzle.

Our minds like to organize the world into familiar shapes. We see two dots over a line and we think "face." We hear five notes and try to name that tune. And when we see a word or name that doesn't fit typical spelling conventions, we try to normalize it. For instance, the name Nevaeh (heaven backwards) is often miswritten as Neveah, because the ea vowel combination is more familiar than ae.

Reince Priebus's name pushes those mental buttons in a big way. To start with, it pairs an unfamiliar first name with an unfamiliar surname. That in itself isn't necessarily a stumbling block. I guarantee you've never seen the name Ganton Lembard before, yet its form makes it easy to read as a name. The trick is that neither Reince nor Priebus follows common English name forms. For extra confusion, the name messes with our i-before-e perception by flipping the order of those vowels from first name to last.

Put it all together and you get a name that your brain tries to reorganize, preferably into tidy words. We may not all share your "Prince Rebus" experience, but many of us stumble over Priebus's name on first reading.

Baby namers might take this as a cautionary tale about challenging names. In particular, pairing two names with unconventional forms or conflicting spellings more than doubles the hazard, which could make life difficult for a child. But you might just as easily come away reassured. After all, a word puzzle of a name didn't stop Reince Priebus from climbing to the upper reaches of American politics.


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September 26, 2016 1:47 PM
By Jenny (not verified)

The letter writer's true problem is a Pratchett deficiency. Read enough about the great and glorious wizard Rincewind and you'll automatically pronounce Priebus's first name correctly.

September 27, 2016 12:30 PM
By Anonymous (not verified)

Jon Stewart had the same observation!

October 13, 2016 2:00 PM
By Rebused (not verified)

I wrote the letter and I'm glad to have gotten a response. I'm glad I'm not the only one to have stumbled, I'm not dyslexic, but I had to vent over the frequent tripping.

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