By Gary Nunn
JuLiar, Thatcher the Milk Snatcher and ScoMo: three politicians with nicknames that won’t shift. (ABC News)
When the British public reflects on Priti Patel’s legacy in her relatively short stint as UK international development secretary, she may be hoping it’s characterised by her diligent stewardship of the UK’s aid budget.
But she’d be wrong. What she’ll really be remembered for is her name. This has little to do with race or gender; it’s about how our memories work.
A politician’s name — and its malleability to a witty nickname — can have a disproportionate effect on their legacy and reputation. It’s not vacuousness; our brains are wired to recall rhyme and humour more readily than an inventory of a minister’s prosaic achievements in office.
If an MP’s name lends itself to a rhyming pun, an ironic distortion or a catchy insult, they’ll primarily be remembered for the event that coined the nickname.
In Patel’s case, she had the perfect surname: “‘Don’t Tell Patel” became her moniker, during the scandal of her not telling the prime minister about unauthorised meetings in Israel.
Patel’s political hero is Margaret Thatcher. Although well-known for being the first female British prime minister and her long and formidable tenure in office, she’s often remembered for something she did before any of this even happened, during her former role as education minister. She revoked free milk for school kids, the perceived measly meanness characterised by the rhyme: “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher!”
Former US president Lyndon B Johnson suffered similar death by nomenclature. Americans’ habit of referring to their presidents by their initials led to a catchy takedown of Johnson’s Vietnam war policy: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
And Tony Blair and Julia Gillard suffered the same distortion for the same alleged crime; BLiar and JuLiar denoting their perceived mendacity.
Naming policy after someone
Many factors in a powerful person’s name could arguably determine their reputation, their legacy and even their behaviour.
A politician’s legacy, if they’re lucky, can be defined through eponymous policy. Although you’d expect their own ego and bluster to be at play here, it’s rarely the politician who names the policy after themselves. Obamacare, for example, defines his two-term administration as his flagship healthcare policy. It’s a reclaimed word, after initially being used by his opponents.
It isn’t always politicians that get naming rights. The “I give a Gonski” campaign links businessman David Gonski more memorably with sound education policy than pretty much any education minister.
Sometimes, alliteration trumps accuracy. London’s popular bikeshare scheme became widely known as “Boris’ Bikes”, despite being introduced by his mayoral predecessor, Labour’s Ken Livingstone.
I was literally born to do this
Carl Jung wrote that there’s “sometimes quite grotesque coincidence between a man’s name and his peculiarities.” This has become known as “nominative determinism”: when a name particularly suits its owner, and even determines what they’ll do in their future. It’s otherwise known as an aptronym. For example, before her alliterative married name, former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, had the suitably stalwart surname “Setright”.
In 2014, Mark Reckless — the MP from Strood, my UK hometown — piqued my interest in this apparent linguistic phenomenon. On the opening day of the Conservative Party conference, he defected to UKIP, causing carefully planned recklessness.
The more I researched him, the more his name seemed to determine his behaviour. In one memorable incident, Reckless got so drunk that he failed to vote on the coalition’s first budget and had to apologise and promise not to drink in Westminster again.
It’s the same determinism seemingly at play that led Richard White to run for the Republican Party in the ’90s. He liked to shorten his name — to Rich. That’s right. He was a Rich White Republican.
In terms of names determining futures, some politicians change theirs, to master their own destiny. Disgraced former Health Minister Sussan Ley added that superfluous third “s”. In 2015, she told the Australian newspaper: “I read about this numerology theory that if you add the numbers that match the letters in your name you can change your personality … If you added an ‘s’ I’d have an incredibly exciting, interesting life and nothing would ever be boring.” Careful what you wish for.
Pronunciation and portmanteaus
Some politicians change their name to make them more palatable to the electorate.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk anglicised the pronunciation of her surname for similar reasons to US vice-president Spiro Agnew, who changed his name from Spiro Theodore Anagnostopoulos.
When forced to resign, he was succeeded by a man born Leslie Lynch King Jr. He’d eventually become president. But you’d know him by his re-brand: Gerald Ford (presumably to escape the nominative determinism of being the best at killing without legal sanction).
Portmanteaus can also act as delicious mockery: like the blundering UK Foreign Secretary (BoJo for Boris Johnson) and our own Treasurer (ScoMo for Scott Morrison).
But Tony Thorne, language consultant at King’s College, London, is dubious about the power of political nomenclature.
“The notions of nominative determinism or aptronyms seem to have no scientific basis; ‘respectable’ linguists tend to ignore them,” he says
“It’s intriguing to think, though, that something like ‘gravitational egotism’ — whereby someone like Trump or Gove, or ‘Bumbling Boris’ come to resemble their names — could sometimes hold true. This’d appeal to the folksy superstitions of the masses.”
One thing that surely appeals to the masses is the irresistible temptation to shorten the name Richard so it perfectly suits a foolish owner. When he was found lying to ICAC, a former NSW minister surely had the peerless aptronym: Richard Face.
Gary Nuun is a freelance journalist.