How to Say ‘Obama’

January 20, 2009

My two-year old son has figured out that if he wants to make a good impression on a room full of strangers, there’s only one thing he needs to say:

“Obama!”

In order not to seem like a circus ventriloquist, with some kind of puppet on my arm, I’ve learned to keep a game face and let Spot work the audience on his own, surprising me as much as anyone whenever he decides to utter these three syllables.

He can say it like a drum roll, with the stress on the first syllable, like he was a boxer training on a punching bag:

O-bama O-bama O-bama.

Or he can say like Ed McMahon introducing Johny Carson:

“oooooo-OOOOOO-BAMA!”

He can also do a peek-aboo version, stressing the middle syllable as if to say, eyebrows arched, “I see you”:

“ooo-BAH-ma!”

It’s a social strategy that might not work very well in certain parts of the country, although by the time he picked it up in the latter stages of the presidential campaign it was a fairly safe bet, and will probably serve him well as he begins his nursery school career in the day school across the street from the Obama family home here in Chicago.

Spot’s emerging talent at name-dropping was put to use even before his first day of parent-tot class, at the nursery school’s open house. There, on the floor with another toddler, fervently digging through an enormous box of Legos, Spot sensed a lull in adult conversation above, and filled  the gap.

“Wait,” said another dad, as conversation was about to resume, holding out his hand as if to stop traffic: “did he just say “Obama”?”

Yes, he did, and no, he’s not being paid by David Axelrod, he just said it as he does from the top of the stairs when the babysitter arrives, when he sees my Obama campaign tee shirt, in the lobby of my in-law’s retirement community, when he wants to let my parents know which chair he’s hiding behind, whenever he wants to get my nose out of my book and to read one of his, or when he’s watching the televised inauguration of the 44th President of the United States in a room full of neighbors and has just peed his pants while sitting in dad’s lap.

The whole things represents an uncanny harmony among the trends of Spot’s linguistic and social development, and the political evolution of the United States. There has been no other post-war American president whose last name was so perfectly suited to the linguistic experimentation of a 2 year old.

“Bush,”  with its final “sh”, is out of the question, as is “Clinton” with its hard consonant “c”. “Reagan” is twice as hard, beginning with a difficult “r” and tripping over a tongue-twisting “g”. On goes the list, through “Carter”, “Ford” (forget about anything with an “f”), the mysterious and advanced-level “x” in “Nixon”, and the utterly impossible “Kennedy” and “Eisenhower.”

Of all the post-war Presidential names, only “LBJ” seems within the realm of possibility, but it comes up so rarely in conversation and evokes so little response that even if Spot could pull it off, it wouldn’t be nearly the crowd-pleaser.

So, in all the ways that the Obama election is a historical turning point for the nation, it represents a turning point for our parent-tot combo as well: only with Obama could Spot have found a word that combines the sounds he knows best, with audiences ready to clap and cheer every time he says it, even if his diaper has failed and he just pissed his pants.

We could all use words like that. He probably won’t find another one  like it for quite awhile.

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