Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Blending the Candidates: "Robama" and "Obamney"

In the third and final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama ended up agreeing on many foreign policy points. Despite all the heated rhetoric of the campaign, both candidates are making a play for undecided voters in the middle of the political spectrum. But for those who are disillusioned with the two-party system, Obama and Romney seem interchangeable: you might as well call them Robama and Obamney.

The blending of the candidates' names has proved popular on blogs of a libertarian or anarchic bent — see, for instance, the recent post by Joel Bowman of The Daily Reckoning, "Obamney vs. Robama." But there's a certain predictability to this morphological tactic of fusing the two names, as similar politi-blends have been around for decades, in both the United States and Great Britain.

In American history, portmanteau words involving politicians' names go back two centuries: it was in 1812 that supporters of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry redistricted the state in such a convoluted way that one salamander-shaped district was dubbed Gerrymander. From then on gerrymandering would refer to any manipulation of legislative district lines to help out one political party.

But let's focus on blends that combine the names of two people rather than human-animal hybrids like Gerrymander. While celebrity name-blends like Brangelina (for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) or Robsten (for Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart) treat a romantic couple as a single unit, political name-blends portray elected officials as too easily merged. The earliest example I've found in American politics is in William Aylott Orton's 1933 book America in Search of Culture, which refers to the administrations of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover as "the Hoolidge era."

Coolidge and Hoover were both Republicans, so blending them together isn't too much of a stretch. It's more noteworthy when members of opposing parties are seen as not so different after all, as with Robama and Obamney. One such example occurred in Great Britain in the 1950s, when Rab Butler, a Tory, replaced the Labour Party's Hugh Gaitskell as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Economist thought that Butler was so similar to his predecessor that the magazine created a satirical hybrid of the two chancellors named "Mr. Butskell." From then on, consensus politics between Conservative and Labour factions came to be known as Butskellism.

A successor to Butskellism in British politics was Blatcherism, combining (Tony) Blair with (Margaret) Thatcher. Those who spoke of Blatcherism were making the argument that Blair's "New Labour" policies weren't so different from Thatcher's Conservative agenda of the '80s. In 2005, Nick Cohen of The New Statesman kept the tradition going by coining Blameron, blending the name of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron with that of Mr. Blair, while Guardian writer Timothy Ash preferred Camerair.

In American politics, we've seen Billary as a blend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, but that's more on the Brangelina model of a supercouple treated as a single entity. It helps, as in Bill and Hillary, for there to be shared phonetic material to allow the names to fuse. In 2000, when dissenters from the two-party system of "Republicrats" wanted to talk about how similar George W. Bush and Al Gore were as presidential candidates, the best they could do was BushGore or GoreBush.

Obama and Romney, on the other hand, are polysyllabic names with some overlapping material (notably the "ahm" in the middle of both), which facilitates blending. Early on in the Republican primary season, Tim Pawlenty made an effort to mesh the two names by referring to Obamneycare, to make the point that Romneycare in Massachusetts became the model for Obamacare on the national level. As I described in a Word Routes column in June 2011, Pawlenty backed off Obamneycare and then belatedly suggested the alternative Robamacare, which better conveys the message that Romneycare came first.

While Pawlenty's ham-handed wordplay was widely seen as a misfire (one of many in his brief campaign), Obamney and Robama have lived on. And the candidates themselves have taken the opportunity to make other types of blends with their opponents' names, whether it's Romney referring to Obamaloney or Obama referring to Romnesia. If nothing else, voters have a choice between two candidates whose names are supremely blendable.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.