The musical wisdom of crowds

It’s British election time and the air is buzzing with political people. You learn a lot about the natural rhythms of the English language when you look at the names and nicknames that settle gently around the shoulders of our politicians. Rarely by their own choice.

Public names are chosen by the public. To please the public ear.

Once a politician begins to attract public attention, we behave like presumptuous grandparents, trying out different versions of the names their parents gave them. Aided and abetted by the media.


The difference between us and the grandparents is that we have the  melody of the politician’s full name (first name and surname too) on our minds.

Consider these political Edwards: Ed Miliband, Ted Heath and Ted Kennedy. Try swapping things around: Ed Kennedy or Ted Miliband.  Are they still easy and pleasing to say? Or does a helping of English T change the mouthfeel of a name, for good or ill?

The T of Ted Kennedy rounds the first ed slightly and adds a subtle difference of sound. Without that T, Ed Kennedy is left as a repetitive rattle of ed-en-ed syllables. Uncomfortable in the mouth.

For Ed Miliband, adding a T to his first name gives it too much forward energy. Ted tips you forward and propels you too quickly into the tricky mouth gymnastics of the l and b of Miliband.

A native speaker of English naturally pronounces Ed as a slower word when it’s paired with Miliband. It’s much easier to say Miliband without tripping over its mid-section when Ed has set the pace and slowed you down.

We all carry an innate sense of how to make our own language sound as balanced as possible. We speed up and slow down sections of words or sentences for the pure pleasure of the sound of them.

Or to display our disapproval. If there had ever been a cruel mass-murderer called Ed Miliband, most native speakers would sharpen their pronunciation of the name, and speed up the saying of it, to spit it out of their mouths all the quicker.

Ed Heath doesn’t sound as pleasing as Ted Heath to a native English ear. Ed’s lacking something when he’s paired with Heath. Adding that T adds a clear border to the name. Ted Heath sounds complete. Ed Heath feels unfinished and unframed, with its shadowy E at the beginning and the soft th at the end. The H of Heath sucks the energy out of Ed.

Edward Heath sounds fine because the two ds of Edward give him a skeleton of strength. Ted Heath is better for a Prime Minister: the music of the name says purposeful and strong. T adds forward power. The voters like to imagine power in a political leader and if a T satisfies that wish, so be it.

Of course, parents give full-length names to their babies. Some consider the music of the first name and the surname together, some think only of the first name. Edward Samuel Miliband and Edward Moore Kennedy sound melodious in their own right. That’s something to do with the three-syllabled surname too.

Edward Richard George Heath is more of a historical list of family names than a musical creation. If his working class Kent parents had ever imagined their little Edward Richard reaching high office, or even going up to posh Balliol College, Oxford, they might have given him at least one inspiring three-syllabled middle name to call on.

How about Teddy Heath? Too cuddly for a serious English politician?

Talking about Teddy Heath highlights a difference between American and British English. Teddy isn’t usual as a serious male name of power in the UK. It’s private family nickname, not something to wear out in public. Unless you’re a member of the aristocracy, which isn’t politically popular in modern Britain. There’s a reason why today’s Conservative Party wanted to bury this.

Teddy Roosevelt had no problem at all being accepted as a serious political figure in the US. In the UK, the Teddy nickname defined him as interestingly American and understandably different for that. Remember David Bowie’s clever use of the name Buddy as shorthand for ‘American’ in Drive in Saturday:

I’ve read that Barack Obama is called Barry by family and friends. Would Barry Obama have worked as his public, presidential name during his 2007 election campaign? If you close your eyes and say the name, how do you imagine a Barry Obama?

In the UK, the name Barry sounds workman-like and neighbourly. If you’re reading this in the US, I’d love to know how the name sounds to you. How about Hussein Obama? Would Barack Obama have been voted into power if he’d used his middle name instead?

On a musical English level, the word Barack has the strong boundaries of b and ck. But it’s the r in the middle that bends the sound so pleasingly – try saying Buck Obama or Brook Obama. The same strong beginnings and endings, but without the soft curve of the central r, the melody of the name just disappears. Barack Obama is pleasing to the ear. It’s unusual, but it’s not difficult to say.

In our own UK election, David Cameron is only shortened to Dave by those who don’t like him or his politics. Like his most artistic and consistent correspondent Bern O’Donoghue here. As a Conservative, maybe Dave sounds too casual and workmanlike for his people. Or perhaps it’s simply the music of the name: David Cameron flows far better than Dave Cameron.

The final d of David gives a clean finish before the clipped C of Cameron. It’s a stronger sound than the muddy ending provided by Dave. Most people who shorten David Cameron’s name to Dave won’t be using his surname too. They’ll be friends or family members.

So that’s how I’m spending the election – wondering why the name Nicola Sturgeon sounds pleasingly practical and modern while the name Nicholas Clegg sounds strangely Dickensian. This Nicola won’t be shortened to Nicky in public life, except by her enemies.

Thinking about the wonderful Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan and how the shortening of his name to Nye Bevan made it easy for English voters to read and say, but stayed faithful to its Welsh pronunciation:

Sometimes I think it must be useful for politicians to answer to one name in their political life and relax at home with the nickname that only their friends and family use. The nickname bestowed on you by the public acts like a raincoat that you keep by the front door, to put on when you leave the house, in case the political weather is threatening, and to shake the rain off when you come home and put it back on its peg.

If English isn’t your native language: the more you listen to English, the more you’ll start feeling its intrinsic musicality. When you sing in English, that sense of the internal melody of the language will help you to sound natural. You’ll put stress and energy into the ‘right’ parts of a line without having to think about it.

© Sing Better English, 2015


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