As we learned last time, onomastics is the linguistic study of names. The impact of names in the political realm is a topic of recent studies and is right up our alley at Catchword.
Kaysitch? Kahsick? Pronounceability of candidate names
Given the lowest-common-denominator nature of national politics, unusual names are clearly something to overcome at the national level. In part, at least, because unusual names are typically hard to pronounce.
According to several studies, having an easily pronounced name offers a definite advantage. “Candidates with names that were hard to pronounce received, on average, 5% fewer votes than candidates with easier names,” wrote Danny Oppenheimer and Mike Edwards in Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well. “In fact, so many politicians were legally changing their names to try and get an electoral advantage that in 2007 Illinois passed a law expressly designed to counter that strategy.”
Research by psychologist Adam Alter of NYU suggests an easy-to-pronounce name can make us more likeable. Further studies indicate that pronounceability of a person’s name affects perception of their truthfulness and trustworthiness — a definite disadvantage for job, as well as electoral, candidates.
(The positive impact of easy pronunciation in brand recognition and acceptance is no surprise to Catchword. When naming a company, service, or product, it’s critical that the target audience knows how to say the name, whether speaking aloud or reading.)
Interestingly, at the local and state level, names that are unusual, hard to pronounce, or have negative associations have not been an insurmountable challenge for many candidates. Perhaps because of greater homogeneity of the region or because candidates are more able to make a personal connection with the electorate. Ask these current and former office holders:
John Kasich (Ohio representative 1983-2001, governor 2011-present and failed presidential candidate)
Rod Blagojevich (Illinois governor 2003-9, and felon)
Mike Crapo (US Senator from Idaho since 1988)
Frank Schmuck (running for Arizona Senate and serving his seventh term as Arizona Precinct Committeeman for the Republican Party)
Robin Rape (Constable for Brazoria County, Texas, since 2000)
Mike Hunt (Aiken County, South Carolina, Sheriff since 2003)
Janelle Lawless (Circuit Judge in Michigan since 2003)
Dick Swett (Congressman from New Hampshire 1991-95, US Ambassador to Denmark 1998-2001)
Ben Bushyhead (Swain County, North Carolina, Commissioner)
Young Boozer (Alabama State Treasurer since 2010)
From abroad: Mark Reckless (UK Independence Party Member of the National Assembly for Wales and former Member of Parliament)
Last time, we observed that multi-syllabic names appear to have an advantage in presidential races. So, overall it appears that a presidential candidate with a two-syllable, Northern European name that is easy to pronounce and has no negative associations may have an advantage.
For local and state offices, however, a candidate’s name, whether unusual, non-Northern European, long, or wildly vulnerable to puns, seems to have less impact on success.
How might candidate names play out this time?
NYU psychologist Alter noted in the Boston Globe that the Trump name carries strong associations that are mostly positive: trump card, triumph – implied victory and dominance. But trump once meant to deceive and we still say “trumped up” for forged or invented, so the name’s connotations are not all favorable.
Catchword’s own linguistics expert Laurel Sutton has noted that Trump is an “unusual name, a single-word name, which sounds very grounded, very firm.” It’s brevity and consonant punch make it more masculine and forceful sounding.
Linguist George Lakoff concurs. He published a lengthy analysis of the Trump name and concluded that it “is a perfect last name for a presidential candidate who offers himself as the ultimate authority.” Sounds like a great fit for voters who wish to be ruled.
On the blue side, The Clinton name certainly did well for Bill. (Less well for 1792 candidate George Clinton, but when you’re facing off against George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, you deserve a pass.)
Professor Grant Smith, an expert in onomastics, has asserted that Clinton is more predictable and therefore comforting based on the name’s rhythm, basic poetic appeal, and predictability of sounds.
Both candidates’ names are easy to pronounce and spell, and both names are English, so no advantage or disadvantage there. The main differences between the names are length and association/connotation.
So, will the multi-syllabic success correlation continue with a Clinton triumph tonight? (Will we even find out tonight who won?) Will Commissioner Bushyhead continue to serve his county? Will Arizona welcome a Schmuck to its state senate? Stay tuned… and don’t forget to vote!!!
There’s actually lots more cool name stuff to talk about with this election. Candidates’ use of first names rather than surnames for campaign materials was a notable departure from centuries of tradition. This practice emphasizes candidate approachability and humanity and distinguished Hillary, Jeb, Rand, and others from family members who have held office. However, referring to candidates by first name only can result in diminished respect and gravitas, which can be politically damaging, particularly for women candidates, who are too often taken less seriously than men to start with.
The appearance and disappearance of Rodham during Hillary’s career is a revealing lens through which to view US attitudes toward women, and their view of themselves. No doubt, Clinton’s presidential candidate moniker, sans maiden name, was informed by polls that showed voters still prefer the traditional husband-surname formula. Retaining one’s surname after marriage is reportedly on the rise but still not a majority.
Fascinating stuff, but we’ll have to save these conversations for another time.