The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

USMCA, Trump’s NAFTA replacement, is big. And that’s just in terms of syllables.

President Trump gestures during the announcement of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, on Oct. 1. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
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When President Trump said he wanted to put America first, maybe he meant it literally. That could explain why he risked so much, economically and politically, to rebrand NAFTA as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.

Instead of leading with North America, Trump’s new agreement puts the United States in front. And it leaves the underlying economic dynamics largely unchanged, according to most economists and analysts.

It’s certainly not a textbook rebranding exercise. When naming a company, the accepted wisdom is to aim for one or two syllables.

Researchers have shown that people recall prices more easily when the numbers have fewer syllables. Another group found that, in the short term, stocks perform better when company names and ticker symbols are easy to pronounce.

Yet the man who became famous for branding everything with his forceful monosyllabic surname has taken the world’s largest trade area (by GDP) from two syllables, NAF-TA, to five, U-S-M-C-A.

In Trump’s own words, “It sort of just works: USMCA.”

It almost sounds as if he’s trying to talk himself into it. “That’ll be the name, I guess, that 99 percent of the time we’ll be hearing: USMCA,” Trump said, according to the transcript of his White House Rose Garden speech Monday.

There’s an art to naming trade zones. Almost all opt for some form of abbreviation, typically based on the name of the region or participants involved, such as WAEMU in West Africa, or PICTA, the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement.

The majority of the more than 25 current multilateral trade agreements we analyzed hit the two-syllable mark on the nose. It’s not just the E.U. (European Union), USMCA’s biggest competitor in terms of total economic output. SAFTA in South Asia, SACU in Southern Africa, CEFTA in Central Europe and others all follow the unofficial law of two syllables.

There were only two with common English names as long or longer than the USMCA: the Pacific Alliance in Latin America and the CIS FTA, or Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Agreement, in the former Soviet Union. Neither was originally named in English. Both agreements are a small fraction of USMCA’s size, measured by GDP.

For this analysis, we looked at the WTO’s list of active regional trade agreements, then filtered out duplicates and those that were obviously bilateral pacts between two countries, or between a country and a trade bloc. We tried not to include treaties that had been subsumed by other larger ones. We verified their common English-language pronunciation whenever possible via videos from local media or government organizations.

To be sure, pronunciations evolve, and humans love ginning up verbal shortcuts. Does that mean we’ll just end up inferring a few vowels and calling USMCA by the short but awkward “us-meh-cah”?

To find out, we asked a few experts. Namely, the organizations that have been using the name USMCA for years.

“I have never heard anyone pronounce it differently” from U-S-M-C-A, said Lindsey Lovell, content manager at the U.S. Motorcycle Coaching Association.

Larry Bullock, founder of the U.S. Minority Contractors Association, laughed at the suggestion. He said he values what each letter represents and that he had never considered changing the pronunciation.

“I find it easy to pronounce,” Bullock said. “We’ve been doing it for a while.”

He said his organization, which advocates on behalf of and assists minority contractors nationwide, has no plans to change or modify its name, now that it is shared with international trade’s $22 trillion behemoth. He sees it as “great for branding.”

“To think that the president of the United States would mention us?” Bullock said. “That’s good for business.”