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Barack’s Prosody Problem—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on February 18, 2008.

Barack’s Prosody Problem
By Ian Ayres ’86

Justin Wolfers’s recent post on “sounding presidential” reminded me that there is another sense in which a candidate might sound presidential. It turns out that almost all presidents have had first names with stressed first syllables – think WILL-iam, or RICH-ard. One-syllable names are also stressed when you say the candidate’s entire name – think BILL CLIN-ton or GEORGE BUSH. (The tendency to choose words with initial stress also tends to be true with regard to names for professional sports teams – think YANK-ees, PA-triots, ROY-als.)

Here’s a trivia question: Who is the only president in American history with an unstressed first syllable in his first name? You’ll find the answer after the jump.
It’s u-LYS-ses S. Grant.

Trochaic (e.g., DUH-da) first names are much more common than iambic (e.g., da-DUH) names. This is bad news for bar-RACK hus-SEIN o-BAM-a, a treble iambic, and it’s good news for HIL-lary CLIN-ton. (Last names are also more likely to have initial stress. I think we have to go all the way back to Mc-KIN-ley for an unstressed initial syllable in a president’s last name.)

Of course, both the Freakonomics book and the blog have had a lot to say about the extent to which names impact your life chances – see, for example, here. The trochaic trend in presidential first names probably doesn’t put Obama at much of a disadvantage. But part of our tradition of English names may be a subtle bias toward hearing initial stresses as more powerful. (There may also be a gendered dimension to the parsody of names. English derived female names may be more likely to be iambic – think e-LIZ-abeth, or anNETTE.

I’m pretty sure I read an Internet version of a journal article called something like “The Politics of Parsody” that tells not only the Grant story, but also mentions iambic challengers who have lost. But for the life of me, I can’t find the article. So, Freakonomics nation, can you find it? And can you think of a professional sports team whose name is iambic?

Is it true that iambic names sound more feminine to Westerners? In this list of most popular boys and girls names from 2006, few of the top 50 names were iambic. But among those that were, the majority were for girls:

12. Alexander
29. Elijah
32. Jose
40. Isaiah

7. Olivia
9. Sophia
10. Samantha
11. Elizabeth
14. Alexis
20. Alyssa
21. Brianna
28. Victoria
30. Savannah
39. Alexa
40. Alexandra
43. Nevaeh (which Dubner discussed here)
45. Makayla
47. Maria
48. Angelina

A relatively easy new test would be to see whether people with iambic names earn less.

On a related issue, does parsody of a book title impact how well it sells? Rare is the author or editor who explicitly analyzes the foot and meter of his or her title. But to my mind, part of the power of The Grapes of Wrath or To Kill A Mockingbird comes from the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.