Barack’s Prosody Problem: A Guest Post

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 prosody 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 Prosody” 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 prosody 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.


It seems like this whole discussion thread needs a lesson in prosody, mainly because everyone is getting them wrong.

San Francisco FORTY-niners

Philadelphia SEVen-ty-SIXers
Cleveland CAVaLIERS


Although the Canadian hockey teams are scanned properly.

I think Parsody is a neologism combining "parse," which actually deals with grammatical units (or just means close inspection) and "prosody."


CUBS isn't Iambic, and it hasn't helped us much....


Very interesting idea. Though the fact that the second syllable in Obama's first name sounds like ROCK surely makes up for the unstressed first syllable if we're talking power and might here.


This may be a pattern in English, but not to all Westerns. Portuguese and Spanish names are mostly iambic and it's hard to recognize any gender related pattern related to the pronunciation. A name's gender is much more commonly identified by it's final letter.


Some people do pronounce "Dwight" as two distinct syllables, "du WIGHT". John Krasinski (who plays Jim on The Office) does it: I notice it every time he says Dwight's name on the show. Mainly because it sounds really strange to me to pronounce it with two syllables.


does anybody have any estimates of what the total number of votes not delegates Obama and Clinton have garnered so far?


Ulysses S. Grant was born HY-rum GRANT (Hyrum Ulysses Grant).


Tampa Bay Buccaneers
San Francisco 49ers

Philadelphia 76ers
Cleveland Cavaliers


Montreal Canadiens
Vancouver Canucks
Phoenix Coyotes
Prior to this year Anaheim Mighty Ducks (now just Ducks)


his astute fan base has already sensed this mild deficiency- if you watch his rallies, the chant is "O-Bam-A" with equal stress, not "o-BAM-a"- who says his political operatives aren't on top of it


Oakland AthLETics.

However, perhaps you have a valid reason why most people refer to them as the Oakland As.


col-O-rado av-A-lanche


The theory's fine, but you probably mean "prosody." Prosody is an important aspect of presidential ("authoritative", not "made by a president") addresses as well. The Declaration of Independence is a great example of fine prosody.

Alex Grigg

As you can see from the comments so far, these stresses can be juggled quite a bit which makes it harder to set up any easy rules here.

I, for one, tend to emphasize hil-LA-ry when speaking of Senator Clinton.

Ian Ayres

Thanks for correcting my spelling on Prosody.

Because of the correction, I was able to find the source for the basic Grant claim:

Politic Prosody
Henry Petroski
College English, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Sep., 1980), pp. 75-78


I have to disagree with you on the 49ers. Never have I heard one of my friends in San Francisco refer to the team as the FORTY-niners. The team name is, without exeption, the forty-NINE-ers.


Obama would also be the first president whose last name both begins and ends with vowel.


This is the silliest thing I have read about the election yet. Antonio got it right with the proper prosody. Which, in turn, makes most of this article pointless. I honestly can't beleive the NYT printed this. What a waste.


du WIGHT EIS en HOW er



Norwich Canaries (English soccer, er, I mean football, team).


I mispronounce Ulysses Grant, and have heard others thus mispronounce it, with the accent on the first syllable.