Name chains in literature?

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Barbara Phillips Long sent in a link to Cari Romm, "Why You Sometimes Mix Up Your Friend’s Name With Your Dog’s Name", New York Magazine 5/19/2016:

Every so often, my mother, in a mental search for my name, will run through what seems like the entire family tree — she’ll say the names of my brother, her sisters, her parents, our family dog, in rapid succession before finally landing on Cari. Most of these names, it may be worth noting, sound nothing alike; also, the dog has been dead for six years.

Romm's article was occasioned by Samantha Deffler et al., "All my children: The roles of semantic category and phonetic similarity in the misnaming of familiar individuals", Memory & Cognition April 2016:

Despite knowing a familiar individual (such as a daughter) well, anecdotal evidence suggests that naming errors can occur among very familiar individuals. Here, we investigate the conditions surrounding these types of errors, or misnamings, in which a person (the misnamer) incorrectly calls a familiar individual (the misnamed) by someone else’s name (the named).

A question from Barbara eight years ago led to a discussion here of the same issue — "Ask Language Log: Analogical substitution of names", 4/17/2008. That post focused on a property of (some of) these name chains not noted by either Romm or Deffler et al., namely that the names often seem to occur in chronological order of the shared relationships. Some of the testimony in that post:

My mother […]would often produce such chains of analogical substitutions of personal names. Hers almost always went in historical order, and were sometimes three or even four names long. Thus she might begin by naming her younger sister, then correct herself to name her daughter, and finally produce the name of a beloved female pet. Or she might name me, then my younger brother, then my oldest son. The referents of the earlier names in the chain didn't need to be present, or even alive.

My grandmother would often call me by a string of names: my mother's name, then my aunt's name (my grandmother's other daughter) and then my name. I learned to jump to attention to any of them!

[H]is mother was famous for doing the string-of-names thing when she wanted to call out to any of her 6 children, and Emmon as the youngest was usually on the receiving end of the longest string, "Stanley-David-Austin-Sven-Betty-Emmon!"

After my future wife appeared on the scene, my mother ran through the string of family thus: Mary Ann, Robert, Paul, John, Kitty, Pat. Mother did not make much pause between names, just stopped (usually) when she got to the one she wanted. Pat got added last, so she came in after whatever the current cat was.

Anyhow, Barbara noted that the misnaming phenomenon doesn't seem to have been used in fiction or drama:

Thinking about this error, which I consider fairly common, I was surprised to realize I don’t remember any examples of it in fiction. So if you post something about it, my bleg would be for literary citations where authors have had characters who did this, whether occasionally or regularly.  

This apparent omission is surprising, given the behavior's semiotic value. Barbara's closing:

And, sigh, last weekend at a memorial service and gathering, I called my nephew by his older brother’s name.


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 6:07 am

    Well, authors do it all the time, in a sense. They introduce a minor character in chapter 3, Karla. She reappears in chapter 8 as Marla and again in chapter 19 at Marge and finally in chapter 36 as Mark, without benefit of surgery or hormones. That's why copyeditors make stylesheets. I have not heard any anecdotes about authors stetting the resulting corrections. They seem to agree that readers would be confused. It might be amusing to have the protagonist at one point blurt out "KarlaMarlaMarge—I mean Mark." But the device could get old fast.

    I think the place to look for the device would be film or television (a stage actor would probably appear to have forgotten the line). My guess is that it has been used from time to time in family sitcoms, although I don't know how one would go about looking for examples.

  2. BlueLoom said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 7:43 am

    My grandmother had 5 children. She tended to go through the whole list (in birth order) until she got to the right one. However, she used only the first syllable or even just first couple of letters (e.g., "Max" became "Ma) as she ran down the list. She never seemed to have any trouble, though, with the names of her grandchildren, of which she had 8.

  3. Aaron said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 9:53 am

    My wife does this all the time, but it seems to be limited by gender and species. She will go through all her sisters before landing on the right one, or all the male cats she's ever owned before landing on the right one, but she never mixes up males and females, nor cats and relatives.

    I have noticed it always seems to be in chronological order, too – from oldest sister to youngest, and from cats that passed away decades ago down to ones that are actually still alive.

  4. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 11:27 am

    This seems to result from the act of classification. I have experienced the same thing that many others have reported, with my parents and other older relatives calling both me and my brother by both names in sequence.

    And I have done this myself many times, usually limiting it to members of a given class. For instance, I have called first cousins by names of other first cousins, children of first cousins by names of children of other first cousins, and friends by names of other friends. Because I always had more association with my friends than with my relatives, I noticed this tendency in myself most often in connection with those friends' names. A few times when I was stuck in a name chain, I just gave up after a couple of names, and just asked the friend whom I was with, "which one are you?"

    More evidence that this is down to classifications came when I was at a job in which I was one of only two men in a department with about 15 women. While the other man was about the same age as I was, he and I were physically extremely dissimilar, and we had markedly different accents. Yet each of us was routinely called by the other's name.

    My understanding of this phenomenon made it easy for me to remain unperturbed on the few occasions that my ex-wife called me by the name of her previous husband. (Not during sex! Just during ordinary daily conversation.)

  5. Zeppelin said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 11:35 am

    My mother will call me or my stepdad by my father's name when she is annoyed with us. My stepmother does the same with both me and my stepbrother. My father would sometimes call me by my stepbrother's name (who is much younger than me, so that would go against the chronological order rule).

    My mother also often calls me by my uncle's name, as do both grandparents on that side of the family. I've learned to respond to the name unless he's actually there, in which case we both look up and wait for clarification. I notice that another uncle has only been added to the possible list of names for me since he died.

  6. Y said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 12:07 pm

    A fellow ninth-grader once addressed the teacher as "Mom". He was so embarrassed that nobody even made fun of him.

  7. David Morris said,

    May 21, 2016 @ 6:40 pm

    My grandmother once ran through my sisters' and my female cousins' names before she got to mine. As her only grandson, I was mildly annoyed.

  8. Fernando Colina said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 2:15 am

    Interesting what Y said. I had a similar experience when dealing with a colleague, older than me and in many ways wiser, but who on occasion needed some admonition. In several of these times I almost used name of my own son to address him, and in one occasion I actually did, to my embarrassment and his mirth (thank god).

    This would seem like a different class of error from the one discussed in this post. I have indeed called my son by the name of my dog many times, and in retrospect I think it happened most often when giving commands: "sit down, Fido!" (name changed to protect the dog and the son).

  9. Robert Coren said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 9:07 am

    My mother's mother used to occasionally call my older brother by my uncle's (her son's) name, and me by my brother's name. I don't recall her ever doing a "name search".

    I occasionally find myself using my husband's name to refer to my brother, or vice versa.

  10. Elizabeth Yew said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 10:56 am

    From a query to Miss Manners, ca.1982:

    Dear Miss Manners: What can you do after accidentally calling your present lover by your former lover's name?

    Gentle Reader: Seek a future lover. Such a mistake is easy to do and impossible to undo. Why do you think the term "darling" was invented?

  11. chris said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 1:48 pm

    One fictional example I can think of, in Lois McMaster Bujold's novel _Captain Vorpatril's Alliance_, a daughter of a large family remembers her father doing this: "You, Rish, Pidge, Jet, Em — no — Tej, you're the one — you, stop that!".

    It supposedly demonstrates that he didn't draw any distinction between the children that are his and his wife's, and the ones that are his wife's and not his, since he can mix them up that way. Not sure if that point is undermined by the examples upthread involving pets or not.

  12. Nanani said,

    May 22, 2016 @ 4:34 pm

    I only have one sister, but our mother mixes up our names in this way, often joking about how her mother (my grandmother) would run through the entire list of eight kids to call her youngest brother (my uncle).

  13. Graeme said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 8:04 am

    I regularly cycle our departed cat's name for our present's. Neither seem to mind.

  14. GH said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 10:24 am

    While calling people by one wrong name is common enough in my experience (@Y: as a child, I also once – mortifyingly – called a teacher "dad" by mistake), I don't think I've ever heard the "chain" version. Usually when someone picks the wrong name (and catch themselves), they'll pause until they can recall the right one, or until someone prompts them.

    But my family isn't filled with long lists of children/siblings or exes, so maybe the opportunity just hasn't been present.

  15. Terry Hunt said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 11:21 am

    My mother sometimes calls me successively by the names of her sister (some years dead) and my father (usually also in the room) before settling on mine. Often this is concluded by ". . . , whatever your name is."

    One colleague in my office frequently addresses another colleague as "Mum", but to be fair this is entirely accurate :-) . Slightly unusually, she has worked for us several years longer than her mother.

  16. Michael said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 11:44 am

    My grandmother was famous for this, but she ultimately suffered from very strong senile dementia. My mother, who never had any symtpoms of dementia or other mental difficulties, never did it.
    For myself, I only seem to have this problem with girlfriends. I have never, thankfully, called out the wrong name during The Act, however, I do it all the time in the grocery store and similar day-to-day situations.

  17. Martyn Cornell said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

    My mother would regularly call me "Da-Martyn" and my brother "Ma-David".
    Children calling teachers 'Mum' is surprisingly common.

  18. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 5:39 pm

    @Chris — Thanks for the suggestion. I haven't read Lois McMaster Bujold for a while, but I'll take a look.

    @BlueLoom — I don't think I mentioned it in the post from years before, because it didn't happen on that vacation, but when my father was speaking to my youngest brother or some other sibling down the chain, he'd say "Ba-Ca-Ta-Da-Bill!" The vowels all came out the same although two names had a and two others had o in that position.

    @Michael — There are a lot of people in my family who've done name substitutions, but there doesn't seem to be a correlation between the naming issue and any dementia. I can see that it would be interesting to explore, but I don't think there would be a straightforward connection between the two.

  19. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 23, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

    While I was more interested in fiction, Dick Margulies brings up a good point about film and television. I tend to read, not watch, and the only example I can come up with from film is the notorious Star Wars flub by Mark Hamill, which he contends did not happen. He is said to have called the character Princess Leia by the name of the actor, shouting out "Carrie":

    I have seen sloppy edits where characters have more than one name. I recall seeing two types — one where a character's name appears two ways (I've never noticed more than two), and the other where a character is misnamed in a series of dialogue paragraphs because either the editor or the writer got confused about who was saying what when. In at least one case of a major character having had more than one name, it looked to me like the author had changed the name mid-stream and no one had corrected all the appearances of the name.

    Having worked as an editor, I tend to classify such problems as "editing errors." I hadn't thought about the name confusions in fiction as being related to naming substitution in speech, but it's a good point.

  20. Robert Coren said,

    May 24, 2016 @ 9:43 am

    @Graeme: I can't decide if I want to know how you would determine whether your departed cat minds what you call it.

  21. Robert Coren said,

    May 24, 2016 @ 9:44 am

    I wonder if there's still any trace in the UK of "Mum" as a working-class-dialect version of "Ma'am".

  22. Chandra said,

    May 24, 2016 @ 3:39 pm

    It seems that most if not all anecdotes of this sort involve a woman doing the name-chaining – mothers, grandmothers, etc. I wonder why that is?

  23. Jonathon Owen said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    My dad's name is Chuck, and he has a younger brother named Doug. My dad says that his dad would sometimes call for Chug or Duck to come help him with something, and whoever was closest would come.

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