DES MOINES — Across the face of Todd Bratten crept the queasy expression of a person trying to utter a word he does not know how to pronounce.
“Oh, I’ll take a stab,” he said, moments before boarding a plane in Atlanta. “BUTT-i-judge?”
It has been many months since former Mayor Pete Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT-edge-edge) of South Bend, Ind., announced that he was considering running for president, many months since Chris Wallace called him “Pete BOOT-i-jadge” on Fox News, and many months since the public was introduced to the name’s confounding sequence of G’s and unusual (unless you are from Malta) configuration of vowels.
You would think that voters would get it by now. But when The New York Times posted an online quiz in December testing respondents’ ability to recognize public figures from their photographs, less than one third of those who successfully identified Mr. Buttigieg were able to spell his name correctly.
Although misspellings were not unusual in the survey — someone wrote “Beonyce” for Beyoncé, for instance — Buttigieg generated an impressive 167 variations, suggesting that whatever the respondents thought the name was, maybe by reverse-engineering what they thought it sounded like, they were wrong.
Some people appeared to conflate him with the head coach of the New England Patriots (“Bodicheck”); others had perhaps seen the campaign’s pronunciation tips and were trying to remember what they were (“Butedgedge”) and still others clearly knew that the name was full of vowels, but were unsure which ones, or where to put them (“Boudeguege”).
Even those who can’t pronounce Buttigieg have mostly kept the name in stride. One exception is President Trump, who has used the name to taunt the mayor at rallies.
“They say EDGE-EDGE,” he declared last May in a tone of “Can you believe this?” incredulity, overstressing the syllables as if they were alien concepts. “He’s got a great chance, doesn’t he? He’ll be great.”
He returned to the topic in December, before that month’s Democratic presidential debate. It is worth pointing out that his own pronunciations were generally successful.
“Who wants to watch BOOT-ed-edge?” he asked rhetorically. “BOOT-ed-jedge. BOOT-edge-edge! You know that you pronounce it, I heard some guy say, no, no, ’cause it’s an unpronounceable name. That’s why they call him” — here the president shifted the timbre of his voice, as if he were speaking in italics — “Mayor Pete. Mayor Pete. Mayor Pete!” He pointed to a place in the middle of his chest. “I’ve had you up to here, Mayor Pete.”
Mr. Buttigieg himself has never seemed to mind that it is hard, without outside help, to get his name right. Instead, he uses it as a way to talk about his Maltese origins — his father was originally from Malta — and to convey his folksy accessibility.
“Most people have trouble pronouncing my name, so they just call me Mayor Pete,” he wrote in 2016. The campaign has made a virtue of the confusion, printing its go-to phonetic aide-mémoire — BOOT-edge-edge — on T-shirts.
Confusingly, Chasten, the candidate’s husband, has muddied the waters a bit by offering some alternatives on Twitter (“Buddha-judge,” “Boot-a-judge” and “Boot-uh-judge”), suggesting that there is no Platonic ideal of pronunciation.
On Monday, caucusgoers who want to support Mr. Buttigieg will not be required to say his name out loud — all they have to do is stand in his corner with other like-minded voters — and thus will not have to risk public pronunciation embarrassment.
Even given what appears to be room to maneuver, many potential voters still grow visibly nervous when required to use the word out loud.
A brief, unscientific survey at Newark and Atlanta airports between legs of a flight to Iowa the other day revealed as many different permutations of Buttigieg as there were travelers willing to answer questions at a boarding gate.
“BOOT-i-gee,” Mohammed Irfan, 50, declared confidently. Then he lost his nerve. “I don’t know. BOOT-i-jed? BOOT-eh-jed?”
“BUTT-i-gig,” said a woman laden with carry-on bags, revealing only her first name (Judy) and her age (75). “BUTT-i-veg,” said her husband, who declined to identify himself, for fear of looking foolish.
Last March, Aaron Nemo, an associate producer for CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” took it upon himself to make a Buttigieg-pronunciation video.
The video repeatedly uses visual aids — a boot and two cliff edges — to illustrate its point.
“It’s not Pete Badger-judge,” Mr. Nemo raps. “It’s not Pete Boat-tea-church. It’s not Pete Bowling-Jewish. It’s not Pete Bush-toe- (gargling noise).” And: “It’s not Pete Davidson. That’s a different guy!”
“What I found amusing was the wide variance in the mispronunciations — how many different ways people were absolutely mutilating his name, sometimes not even getting a single syllable correct,” Mr. Nemo said via email.
Back at the Atlanta airport, Mr. Bratten, the man who did his best, said that “Mayor Pete” was a great solution for people rendered nervous by the word Buttigieg.
“It has a warm, cozy feel to it,” he said. “Though I think it’s going to be a stretch to get from Mayor Pete to President Pete.”