Asked & Answered 6.0

Blame it on a simple twist of Hickenlooper fate.

I confess: it is only because former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper decided to run for president that I decided to write this post.  His candidacy intrigues me — if Hickenlooper were to win, he would would join Dwight Eisenhower as our only four-syllable presidents and he would be the first president with a 12-letter surname.

Hickenlooper himself talks about his “funny name” but how unusual is it, relative to other U.S. Presidents?  How does it affect his chances?  What is a presidential name, anyway? Since no one is addressing these important questions, I am happy to do so — not only for Hickenlooper’s sake but for all of the 2020 presidential candidates.

Here is how we will proceed.  First, we will assign weights to the names of our presidents based on their positive or negative influence.  We will then use those weights to tabulate the desirability of three properties of presidential names — length, consonant-vowel ratio and last letter.  Finally, we will calculate a Sounds Like A President (SLAP) score for each candidate’s name based on its properties and their historical desirability.

• • • 

Let’s preface the discussion by comparing the length of the surnames of U.S. presidents to those of the population at large.  The chart below shows the prevalence of last names of various lengths for both groups.[1]  Note how the presidents with 8 to 10 letters in their last names are over-represented with respect to the population:

We should not conclude from this chart that long names confer an electoral advantage.  Perhaps the performance of those presidents was so poor that a longer name now carries a negative connotation.  Or it could be that no one even remembers certain presidents and therefore the characteristics of their names are irrelevant.  This is why we must begin the analysis by calculating Presidential Name Weights (PNW):

PNW (for President x) = Reputation Score  x  Memorability Factor

Using Presidential Name Weights (ranging from -1.0 to 1.0) is more realistic than giving equal weight to each name without regard to how or whether a president is remembered.

The Reputation Score of each president is derived from the 2019 Survey of U.S. Presidents conducted by Siena College Research Institute.[2]  In this survey, 157 presidential scholars and historians rated the presidents on their abilities and accomplishments, and the results were ranked from 1 (best) to 44 (worst).  I re-scaled the rankings so that Reputation Score ranges from 1.0 (best) to -1.0 (worst) and 0.0 represents an average (mediocre) president.

The Memorability Factor for each president comes from a study by Roediger and Desoto, in which participants were asked to name as many presidents as they could remember.  This factor ranges from 0.0 to 1.0, reflecting the fraction of participants who were able to name a given president.[3]

We can now calculate a PNW for each president as the product of his reputation and his memorability.  The results (below) are sorted from most positive to most negative:

This chart tells us that the names Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Kennedy carry the most positive weights, whereas Nixon, Hoover, Johnson, Bush and Trump suffer the most negative weights.  Candidates whose names remind us of Washington or Lincoln would score highly relative to candidates with names like Bush and Trump.

• • • 

Our next step is to construct a Desirability Table for each property of a presidential name.  For instance, how desirable is having 9 letters in one’s last name?  How desirable is having a name that ends in n?  And so on.

This example shows how a Desirability Table is built.  Say we want to know the desirability of having a surname with x letters.  1) We list all the presidents with x-letter surnames and add up the PNW weights for those presidents.   2) We divide that sum by the total PNW for all presidents to yield the desirability factor D for an x-letter surname.  Repeat these steps for every possible value of x to complete the Letter Count Desirability Table.

Here then are the Desirability Tables for the presidential name properties in our analysis.  Each D-factor is a value between -1.0 and 1.0, and the highest D-factor for each property is shown in green.

The tables reveal that the highest-scoring presidential name would be 9 letters long, have a consonant-to-vowel ratio between 2.1 and 2.6, and end in the letter n.  Interestingly, none of our presidents’ names have all three of these features.[4]

The last item we need to address before calculating Sounds Like A President (SLAP) scores for the candidates is the weight we should assign to each property.  Here, we will elect to base a property’s weight on the amount of variation in its D-factors.[5]  Sparing the reader my lengthy justification, the weights we will assign to letter count, consonant-vowel ratio and last letter are w(LC) = 0.265, w(CV) = 0.275 and w(LL) = 0.460 respectively. 

• • • 

We are finally ready to calculate the SLAP score for each candidate, using this formula:

SLAP (for candidate x) = w(LC) x D(LC)  +  w(CV) x D(CV)  +  w(LL) x D(LL)

For illustration, let’s consider John Hickenlooper.  Hickenlooper’s last name has 12 letters, a consonant-vowel ratio of 1.4 and ends in r, so his SLAP score is

SLAP (Hickenlooper) = (0.265 x 0) + (0.275 x 0.463) + (0.460 x -0.038) = 0.110

which means he does not have a very presidential name, indeed.

The highest possible SLAP score is 0.657, corresponding to a name which has 9 letters and 5 consonants and ends in n.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein, destiny awaits you.

• • •

The table below lists the SLAP scores for the 20 mainstream presidential candidates (plus Donald Trump).  And the name of our next president is…

Elizabeth Warren!  Warren vaults to the top of the list on the strength of her last letter n and consonant-vowel ratio of 2.0.  Warren edges out Joe Biden, whose five-letter name weighs him down, thanks to the likes of Trump, Nixon, Tyler, Hayes and Grant.

Tim Ryan of Ohio has a decent SLAP score and may be a good running mate for Warren. Bernie Sanders has another respectable showing but comes up short in the last letter race. Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg (his full name) is just happy his last name is not Burns.

If only Hillary Clinton were running… her Sounds Like A President score would be 0.637.

Last and least is where we find Donald Trump.  Memorably poor performance.  Negative scores in all areas.  Still doesn’t sound like a president.


[1] Data for the U.S. population is from the 2010 U.S. Census, comprising the most-common 150,000 names representing 90% of the population.

[2] As one might expect, George Washington topped the rankings and Andrew Johnson came in dead last.  Donald Trump was merely the third-worst.

[3] The Roediger and Desoto study was published in 2014, prior to the 2016 election.  As such, the president named most often was Barack Obama (100%).  I assigned Donald Trump a 100% memorability factor as well but did not adjust the figures for the other presidents.

[4] Readers may ask, why these properties and not others, such as the number of syllables?  Syllable count would be fairly redundant, as it is correlated with letter count and consonant-to-vowel ratio.  I tried to select properties that appeared to be more-or-less independent but I did not actually test their cross-correlation.

[5] Specifically, the property weights w are based on the standard deviation in D(property).  My rationale is that a factor with little variation does not differentiate the candidates as much as one with large variation.  The statisticians among my readers are sure to howl, which is OK, because I don’t know any statisticians.

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Sydney J. Harris was a mid-20th-century newspaper columnist whose daily syndicated feature “Strictly Personal” sparked my own desire to write.  Harris often devoted his column to the topic “Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things” and today I will do the same. — Editor

□  Charles Dickens (1812-1870) penned a partial draft of a novel titled Tale of Three Cities, but he abandoned the effort after facing “the greatest difficulty” trying to incorporate the city of Cleveland, Ohio, into his epic saga about love, sacrifice and the French Revolution.

□  A group of bats is called a battalion; a group of starfish is called a constellation; a group of slugs is called a shellacking.

□  The first and so far only dog that has been canonized as a saint was St. Bernard in 1403.  Its attested miracles included heeling, speaking, and playing dead.

□  Before it was mass-produced, toilet paper was harvested from the limbs of shade trees, typically on the morning of November 1.  But storage and handling of the natural product was an issue, and demand always exceeded supply, thus an industry was born.

□  The reason former Vice President Al Gore is rarely seen in public these days is not due to ill health, but because Gore is responsible for making 24 billion connections a second on a gigantic internet switchboard installed in the basement of his Tennessee mansion.  “I wish I’d never invented the damn thing,” Gore told Vanity Fair in 2018.

□  It takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of the maple flavor contained in 132 million bottles of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup.

□  According to an obscure verse in Genesis, God created limes to keep lemons company.  But this made yellowberries jealous and they complained loudly to God.  So God punished the yellowberries for their jealousy by turning them blue.  To this day, blueberries are the only blue fruit or vegetable, friendless among the produce and still resentful of God.

□  One of the first wooden tools was a six-toothed implement that archaeologists believe was used by early humans as a hair comb or a fork, and often both.

□  Worcestershire sauce was created by an English merchant, Darius Butts, who originally named the sauce after himself.  But initial sales were so poor that, on the advice of friends, Butts reluctantly renamed his product.  “Let the ignorant bastards try to pronounce this,” Butts bitterly noted in his 1838 ledger.

□  After automobiles, the second-leading cause of death among opossums is sleep apnea.

□  While watching the Fox News Business Channel, I learned that climate change is a hoax engineered to make us join communes and stop eating meat; that Marriott Corporation is converting over thirty of its properties to Courtyard Communes; and that Burger King is introducing a new vegetable burger called The Global Whopper.

□  Several of these items have an element of Truth in them.  Truth (Tr) is Element 119 and is among the rarest of all substances.  Happy April.

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• Advice to children:  Tell Mommy that the biggest cookies in the jar disappeared first  because they were the easiest to grab.  Mommy will be forced to admire your reasoning.

• A taxi is a taxi, no matter how it is dispatched or who owns the vehicle.  Services like Uber and Lyft are no more about “ride-sharing” than my trips to the hardware store are about “getting some air.”  All rides-for-hire to the public should be subject to the same safety, passenger accessibility, driver accreditation and insurance regulations.  After that, if riders choose to put up with surge pricing and sharing personal data, let them.

• If I had it to do over again, I would have become a transportation engineer.  (Lion tamer would have been my second choice.)  I would have eventually found a job with AASHTO, the outfit that administers the interstate highway system.  My position of power would have allowed me to tackle urgent transportation problems such as north-south highways that have been foolishly posted with east-west direction signs.

Consider the following two examples.  I-376 in Pennsylvania (below left) heads south from Hermitage, PA for 55 miles and then turns eastward toward Monroeville, PA for 31 miles.  But the entire route is signed EAST-WEST.  The logical way to sign this would have been NORTH-SOUTH from Hermitage to Moon and EAST-WEST from Moon to Monroeville.

Or consider I-26 (at right) heading south-southeast from Kingsport, TN to Charleston, SC.  This highway runs seventeen miles south for every ten miles east.  Yet I-26 is also tagged EAST-WEST in its entirety, which gets especially confusing near Asheville, NC.  The signs should say NORTH-SOUTH at least as far southward as Spartanburg, SC, and preferably along its full extent.  There, I’ve had my say.  I can retire from AASHTO a happy man.

• If only I had been given some vocational guidance when I was young, I might have had more adventure in my life:

• I am not a hermit or pariah, but I really have no friends here in town.  In fact, I haven’t made a lasting friend in 40 years.  I follow our local Meetup site but few of those groups interest me.  (Men’s nude yoga?  Don’t think so.)  I considered starting a Meetup myself, for people who have trouble making friends.  But who would sign up?  Would I attend?  What kind of people can’t make friends?  Just sad and lonely losers!  I’ll stay home.

• Seriously, there is a local Meetup called Asheville Social Introverts Group.  They have weekly get-togethers in which they sit on opposite sides of a large room for an hour and read quietly to themselves.  OK, that last part wasn’t true.  Actually they play backgammon and chess — which interests me only slightly more than men’s nude yoga.  Maybe I should attend one of their events and bring along Yahtzee to amp up the excitement.

• Same old Donkeys.  Democrats are once again managing to shoot themselves in the foot, this time over standards of conduct, of all things.  They forced Al Franken to resign (who was probably more guilty of being a jerk than a sexual predator but we don’t really know) and stomped their feet in pharisaic unison trying to drive Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam out of office (who is definitely guilty of clumsy insensitivity).  The Dems obviously hope to make themselves look as squeaky-clean as possible so they can attack Donald Trump from the moral high ground.  What is amusing is that neither side of the electorate cares who is the holiest — certainly not Republicans, who will embrace anyone who is good for business and will stack the Supreme Court with righties, and not even Democrats, who would vote for Stormy Daniels if they thought she could beat Trump.  (Hey, she did once.)

• I found a recent malapropism in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette comment section to be uncannily accurate: “The truth will be reviled.”

• It is annoying when an online article about a time-sensitive topic (e.g., upcoming event or product review) bears no publication date.  Why would a site withhold this information? I would argue that — other than fiction, and even then — there is no writing that does not involve a time element; hence, to omit or conceal its date is disingenuous.

• What-Goes-Around-Stays-There Department:  Ironic how the money I used to spend on vodka every month now goes toward my prescription for Eliquis.  Different drug makers, similar profit margins (19% and 22% respectively).

• Windows 10 offers users a “high contrast” mode, supposedly to improve text readability.  On my laptop, the only thing this does is switch colors to black-and-white and make some lines thicker.  It has no effect on the contrast of text, not even the text in its own software.  Just one of the new things I keep discovering about getting older.

• I look and feel like I’ve aged a lot in the last year.  But clocks don’t run backwards and neither can I.  So I have started to paint again.  After several hours of work on just the background of my first project, I decided it was ugly and I painted over the whole thing.  Then I botched the next try and now I have to sand it all down.  I feel younger already.

• An old high-school friend recently sent me a list of our classmates who have passed away. I was stunned to see how many of our African-American peers were on the list, relative to their numbers in our class.   This led me to look up U.S. life expectancies for the year we were born: for white men and women, the figures were 67 and 73 years; for black men and women, 59 and 64 years.  I am still shocked by those numbers.

Today, though the situation has improved, the difference in life expectancy between whites and blacks is still 3.5 years.  Blacks aged 18-49 are twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die from heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and black infant mortality is twice as high.  And blacks are 50% more likely than whites to have no health insurance.

Affordable health care is not only an economic issue, it is a social justice issue.

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