Cameron-Obama: A UK-US special relationship forged in syllables?

Ever since Winston Churchill coined the phrase 'special relationship' in 1945, the number of syllables in US presidents' and British premiers' names have often matched. Was David Cameron destined to become a three-syllable premier alongside Barack Obama?

(l.-r.) Charles Dharapak/AP, Andrew Parsons/Conservative Party/AP
President Barack Obama (left) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington calls British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) at 10 Downing Street, in London, Tuesday.



And now Obama-Cameron.

Whether or not the US president and newly elected UK premier will forge a “special relationship” as have past transatlantic leaders, Barack Obama and David Cameron already have one thing going for them: syllabic harmony.

Bush-Blair was a mono-syllable partnership; Thatcher-Reagan was a two-syllable collaboration; and Obama-Cameron is now the three-syllable match.

Nomenclature numerology?

Syllables as destiny?

Ever since Winston Churchill coined the phrase “special relationship” in 1945, a coincidence of surname syllables has occurred.

During 42 of the past 65 years – or some 65 percent of the time – both the US and UK had a leader with the same number of syllables in their last name.

But during the first 156 years of UK premiers and US presidents (starting with George Washington's first term in 1789), when a much higher percentage of American names actually had Anglo-Saxon roots, presidents' and premiers' syllables only coincided over 54 years, or about 35 percent. Leadership years overlap (for example, we've classified 2010 as a Cameron year, even though Brown held office the first four months), creating small a margin of error.

And when comparing the US with its Cold War enemy, Russia, over the past 65 years, syllables have coincided only 25 years, or about 38 percent of the time.

Transatlantic harmonic convergence

Between American and Britain there now exists a "harmonic convergence in the rhyming scheme of the names," Mark Blyth, a professor of political economy at Brown University, says sarcastically.

“It’s totally random,” he adds. “I’m not signing up to the new school of political analysis based upon syllables.”

And no one is suggesting that this is what Churchill meant when he started using the term.

“We should not abandon our special relationship with the United States and Canada about the atomic bomb and we should aid the United States to guard this weapon as a sacred trust for the maintenance of peace,” Churchill said in November 1945.

He used the phrase again in March 1946, more famously, in his so-called "Iron Curtain" speech in Missouri, saying: "Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States."

As Churchill said those words, Harry Truman’s presidency was coinciding with the UK leadership of Clement Attlee (and then Churchill), marking eight years of a two-syllable leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. The three-syllable (John F.) Kennedy presidency coincided with the (Harold) Macmillan and (Alec) Douglas-Home premierships.

All of the (Lyndon B.) Johnson years, plus two of the (Richard) Nixon years, coincided with the (Harold) Wilson premiership. The last two (Jimmy) Carter years, and all of the (Ronald) Reagan years, coincided with (Margaret) Thatcher's time in office. And five of the (Bill) Clinton years matched with the (John) Major premiership, which led us into the eight-year Bush-Blair-Brown single-syllable special relationship.

Now, after a chilly miss-match between three-syllable Obama and one-syllable Brown, the two countries are in syllabic harmony again.

“As I told the Prime Minister,” Obama said in statement posted on the White House web site Tuesday, “the United States has no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom, and I reiterated my deep and personal commitment to the special relationship between our two countries – a bond that has endured for generations and across party lines, and that is essential to the security and prosperity of our two countries, and the world.”


"It was very notable," says Reginald Dale of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., "that Obama used the phrase 'special relationship' when he congratulated Cameron on becoming prime minister. He was surprisingly fulsome in his remarks to Cameron, given that he has not shown much fondness for Britain."

Mr. Dale says that Obama's relationship with Gordon Brown suffered from personality differences because of the former British premier's "crankiness."

But the younger David Cameron is seen as a charming, graceful, smooth-talking politician more akin to Obama, who is also a young father. And because Cameron is arguably a conservative in a liberal country, while Obama is a liberal in a conservative country, Professor Blyth says the two actually meet somewhere in the middle.

Cameron has in the past questioned the concept of a special relationship, saying "the sooner we rediscover the right balance, the better for Britain and our alliance," though he reportedly reaffirmed ties during Obama's call on Tuesday and pledged continued military support in Afghanistan.

It may be noted that as Russia and US relations have warmed up over the past two years, their syllables have also matched up.

Medvedev, like Obama and Cameron, is a three-syllable name.


“I wouldn’t go too far with this,” says Dale. “That’s more trivia than a policy question.”


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