Brain Brian

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Alan Kennedy, a dealer of Oriental art based in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles, who was a student of the polymath Schuyler Van Rensselaer Cammann (1912-1991; "Ki" to his friends and acquaintances) at Penn half a century ago, and who is a regular reader of Language Log, sent me this message:

I see a comment from Brian Spooner, and had no idea that he was still at Penn.  Decades ago, one of his students told me that he was sometimes called Brain in Afghanistan.  Apparently someone there had transposed the 'a' and the 'i' in writing his name.

My reply to Alan:

Hah, that's an appropriate transposition!

I asked Brian about that, and here's his reply:

It happened a lot in Afghanistan. But now it happens here as well! I get the impression that the name is more commonly used in England, and many Americans are unfamiliar with it. Do you think that could be the reason?

To which I replied:

Could be, Brain.

And we also have the spelling "Bryan", so I'm often unsure whether to write "Brian" or "Bryan".


  1. gene hill said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 4:44 pm

    But not a Spoonerism?

  2. Laura Morland said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 5:11 pm

    The name "Brian" is more commonly used in England? How about Ireland?

    Brian is an Irish name; see
    The name is quite popular in Ireland, on account of Brian Boru, a 10th-century High King of Ireland. The name was also quite popular in East Anglia during the Middle Ages. This is because the name was introduced to England by Bretons following the Norman Conquest.Bretons also settled in Ireland along with the Normans in the 12th century, and 'their' name was mingled with the 'Irish' version. Also, in the north-west of England, the 'Irish' name was introduced by Scandinavian settlers from Ireland. Within the Gaelic speaking areas of Scotland, the name was at first only used by professional families of Irish origin.

    It was the fourth most popular male name in England and Wales in 1934, but a sharp decline followed over the remainder of the 20th century and by 1994 it had fallen out of the top 100. It retained its popularity in the United States for longer; its most popular period there was from 1968–1979 when it consistently ranked between eighth and tenth. The name has become increasingly popular in South America – particularly Argentina and Uruguay since the early 1990s.

  3. Chips Mackinolty said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 5:14 pm

    With the death of Monty Python's Terry Jones, I have been re-watching some of his triumphant comedic sketches. Life of Brain?

  4. Laura Morland said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 5:16 pm

    A follow-up anecdote on the commonality of Brian in Ireland.

    Back in 1990, I had to get a prescription filled on the Dingle peninsula ( West Kerry) for my (late) husband, the Irish and Celtic scholar Brendan O Hehir. When I picked up the pill bottle, it read "BRIAN O HEHIR".

    Only in Ireland, I surmised, could a pharmacist unthinkingly substitute one popular Irish given name for another!

  5. Chiara Maqueda said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 5:25 pm

    @Chips Mackinolty.
    Given Jones died of primary progressive aphasia (PPA), which is a variant of frontotemporal dementia, which he reportedly battled with "good humour", "Life of Brain" may well indeed be appropriate!

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 6:09 pm

    I think the relevant Brian's impression that (adult) Americans are unfamiliar with the name is mistaken for the reasons given by Laura Morland, although to be fair it was a pretty rare name for US-born boys of Prof Spooner's year of birth (at which point it was quite popular in the UK). But even if it's fallen back out of favor in the US for new arrivals in the current millennium, it will take quite a while for the substantial cohort of American Brians currently aged between roughly 30 and 60 (its run in the top 25 boys' names was years-of-birth 1958 through 1989) to dissipate. One nuance, however, is that the Brian:Bryan ratio was not consistent during the era of Peak Brian – in 1958 there were approximately 5 i-variants for every y-variant, but by 1988 the ratio was more like 2.5:1, which seems closer to the point at which you might be more likely to inquire about the particular individual rather than simply assume by default the more common spelling.

  7. Brian T. Rice said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 6:42 pm

    I'm unclear on what's so special about this. English-speaking people get this wrong all the time in text/print.

    The only thing different here is that lack of familiarity lets it go uncorrected for a bit when spoken and heard.

    I mean, this has happened to me my entire life.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 7:07 pm

    Separately, I dredged up from the recesses of my punk-rock memories the existence circa 1980 of a band named Brian Brain, but in using google to sharpen those dim recollections I learned for the first time that the band's name was inspired by a cricket player who was apparently actually given that name (well, "Brian Maurice Brain," in full) by his parents.

  9. Don Rosso said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 7:33 pm

    And in a case of reverse transposition, a prominent NBA player of the late 1990s, Bryon Russell, frequently found his name misspelled (and mispronounced) as Byron.

  10. Brian Clark said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 7:44 pm

    People misspell my name all the time and have for many decades. So I don't think it's lack of familiarity, since at one point in my lifetime, Brian was one of the most common names for US-born kids. People who know me well, people who know me well and are genuine "brains" themselves get it wrong. I always figured is was a simple case of swapping vowels around. Being mildly dyslexic, especially with numbers, but also with spelling, I have always just rolled with it. My 2 cents!

  11. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 3:13 am

    Although his other names are Michael Henry and Nicko is a nickname (ha!), apparently the real surname of Iron Maiden's drummer is McBrain, which I've never seen before.

    Is there perhaps a cover band called Brian Maiden?

  12. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 5:08 am

    More often spelt MacBrayne? Although even that I've mostly heard as part of Calmac and its predecessors. Then there's the fortunate boy called Donald MacBrayne/MacBrain who caught the train to Glasgow in the poem, but I don't think I've ever seen it written down.

    There's a Scottish band called Iron Midden…

  13. Philip Anderson said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 5:35 am

    Don’t forget the comedian Dara Ó Briain (the Irish surname, originally Ua Briain, usually anglicised as O’Brien).

  14. Michael Watts said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 5:41 am

    Many Americans seem to experience an overpowering urge to spell "Michael" as "Micheal". This despite the fact that "Michael" is one of the very most common American male names, and the typical American probably knows more than one!

    My favorite comment on this matter was that of another Michael working in my office (there were three of us in about 20 people, though one was actually Polish and spelled Michał), who responded to someone's question about whether the spelling wasn't really "Micheal" to the effect that "People named Michael don't spell it that way, but other people do."

    So I'd have to agree that a tendency to misspell names has nothing to do with how familiar the names are to the person misspelling them.

  15. Rodger C said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 7:38 am

    While we're more or less on the subject: People here and on Hat frequently address me as Roger, presumably right after looking at my name.

  16. Bob Michael said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:18 am

    @Michael Watts
    Try having Michael as a last name, as I do. First, nobody believes that’s really your last name (no, what’s your *last* name.) but even if they could spell it as a first name they fall apart on spelling the last name. I guess the sequence “ae” is extremely uncommon in English, and their brians aren’t wired for it.

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:25 am

    I have of course also seen this mis-spelling (Brain for Brian) repeatedly. The corresponding pronunciation, though, would be highly unexpected, and as suggested clearly reflects unfamiliarity (with English and with the name).

    While 'Brain' can only be a finger-fumble, 'Micheal' could reflect genuine ambiguity from the pronunciation: people know there's two vowel letters in the second syllable, though it's spoken as if there were one, and guess at the order – and as the last post suggested, 'ea' is the much more common sequence. This explanation would be confined to the number of people that unfortunately are unable to master spelling. I myself am quite sure I'd never get either name wrong except as a typo.

    Variant spellings are a different matter: apparently Brian and Bryan actually have separate origins, though that is no longer recognised, and Brien has historical authority; is the surname more often O'Brian or O'Brien? – I always want to write the former.

    Michael Watts:

    I regret to say that your

    … responded to someone's question about whether the spelling wasn't really "Micheal" …

    seems to be a misnegation, or at least confusing. I assume the question was whether the spelling _was_ 'really' Micheal (it's actually hard for me to write it wrong!). While this redundant negation is common in yes-no questions, it shouldn't be carried over to indirect quotations of them – if any grammar authorities speak to the matter, I'd like to hear them.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:42 am

    Rodger C — "People here and on Hat frequently address me as Roger, presumably right after looking at my name". I fear I may well have done just that, and I also know why. I remember the sound of a contributor's name, not its spelling, and when I seek to address that person I dredge up the memory of the sound and then spell it as I normally would. In your case, I know far more "Roger"s than I know "Rodger"s, so the wrong spelling is the one to first come to mind. For which I apologise.

  19. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 9:20 am

    I believe 'Micheal' is an Irish form (regularly used when writing in Irish, but sometimes in English as well).

    'Brian/Bryan', though it is certainly an Irish name, is not exclusively so; in the middle ages the lords of Bedale, in Yorkshire, were alternately called Bryan Fitzalan and Alan Fitzbryan. I believe they were orginally from Brittany.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 10:11 am

    "Brain" for "Brian" doesn't happen just when people are typing, it also occurs when people are handwriting, and I've even heard people misspeak it.

    As for Michael, in addition to all its mangling in writing, if you're a woman with that for a given name, there's the added problem that people have a hard time believing it to be so.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 10:20 am

    It's interesting that, since this "Brain Brian" post went up, there's been a big surge in readers looking at "Made in Chian" (3/27/13).

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 10:27 am

    Since we're complaining about names, my full name is Gerald, and some people seem to believe my use of the nickname Jerry is a misspelling.

    Andrew Usher: I'm not a grammar authority, but I'll answer anyway. The negation isn't redundant in the question. "Is your name really Micheal?" means the speaker thinks it isn't Micheal, and "Isn't your name really Micheal?" means the speaker thinks it is Micheal. Naturally one would reflect that distinction in an indirect question.

    Is your name not Bruce?

    Laura Morland: Isn't Brian/Bryan often spelled Brayan in Spanish-speaking countries?

  23. Michael Watts said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 10:48 am

    I regret to say that your

    … responded to someone's question about whether the spelling wasn't really "Micheal" …

    seems to be a misnegation, or at least confusing. I assume the question was whether the spelling _was_ 'really' Micheal (it's actually hard for me to write it wrong!). While this redundant negation is common in yes-no questions, it shouldn't be carried over to indirect quotations of them – if any grammar authorities speak to the matter, I'd like to hear them.

    I can't agree; the question being indirectly reported here is 'isn't the spelling really "Micheal"?', not 'is the spelling really "Micheal"?'. The negation of the auxiliary is not redundant, it specifically expresses that the speaker expects the answer to be yes. This ties in to the point I'm making about the "overpowering urge" some people seem to feel to spell the name the wrong way.

  24. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 11:05 am

    As the kids say these days, "I feel you" when it comes to name mis-spellings.

    My father was born in Jersey City (NJ, USA) in 1919, to Slovak parents, but with a Polish midwife. His name is spelled "Majk" on his birth certificate, though all his other paperwork (Army, etc) says "Michael".

    I would think anyone familiar with (English-translation) Biblical names would spell it correctly. Gabri-el, Ari-el, Rafa-el, Micha-el, Samu-el, etc). Though of course I've seen "Micheal" plenty of times, for whatever reason.

    Also: I was born in 1969 and had several classmates named Brian (and a free Bryans, too). All battled the Brain misspelling.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 12:42 pm

    That the traditional English orthography for certain Hebrew "Bible names" is in substantial tension with more general English orthographic conventions can be seen in how the traditional spelling "Nathanael" for the disciple in John's Gospel has for most of the last century-plus been much rarer as a name given to US-born boys than the less-Biblical variant spelling "Nathaniel." Since the "-ael" in Michael comes out as one syllable (with a reduced vowel) rather than two, however, an -iel respelling doesn't make sense.

  26. Michael Watts said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 12:49 pm

    Sometimes it goes the other way. There is an innovative "Rachael" spelling of "Rachel". (A rare example of a Hebrew name ending in -el but not referring to El.)

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 1:01 pm

    @Michael Watts. Yes, good example. One of my daughters is named "Rachel," which is more common in the US for her year of birth than the "Rachael" alternative by a ratio of roughly 7.5:1, but people guess wrong as to how her name is spelled more often than I would have supposed.

  28. Rachael Churchill said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 3:39 pm

    As a Rachael, I get "Racheal" a lot, for presumably the same reason people called Michael get "Micheal".

    As for Biblical -el names, I don't think the sort of people who write "Micheal" and "Racheal" know whether most names are Biblical or not, or know there's anything in common between Michael, Samuel, Gabriel, etc (as their final syllables are all pronounced differently).

  29. Brian Myers said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 4:41 pm

    I agree with Brian Rice. I don't see anything remarkable about this either. I too have seen that misspelling all my life. Yes, once people see what they've actually written they are tempted to make a joke about it, but it's just a common typo, and not a surprising one.

  30. Andrew Usher said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 1:40 am

    Andrew (not the same one):

    As I stated, there are two different historical names there. The one of Irish origin was traditionally spelled 'Brian' in English; the one of Norman-French origin, 'Bryan'. The two have been completely conflated, but if you're going to make historical assertions you must remember that.

    As to the grammar question, I am familiar with that distinction in questions (even if I was wrong to call it 'redundant'), and no doubt use it myself sometimes. But seeing it in a indirect form really did confuse me, even if it's technically right. I don't know if that's just a problem with me or what.

  31. B.Ma said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 4:52 am

    The Cantonese surnames of Chiu (Mandarin: Zhao) and Chui (Mandarin: Xu) have similar Romanized spellings, which seems to confuse a lot of people who pronounce them oppositely.

    I know two sets of people with the same given name who have this problem, for example John Chiu and John Chui. Even after 20 years some of our friends still can't get their surnames correct, not to mention people who have just met them. (Of course this only happens in English-speaking contexts and not in Cantonese.)

    I think this may also be related to why many people misspell "definitely" as "defiantly".

  32. Laura Morland said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 5:35 am

    @ Jerry Friedman,

    I was simply quoting Wikipedia, and had never before seen the spelling "Brayan" until your comment.

    However, the data on Wiki Commons support your suggestion:
    Brayan Angulo Tenorio‎, Brayan Hernández‎, Brayan Cortés‎, Brayan Peña‎, Brayan Ramírez‎, Brayan Sánchez‎, Brayan Andrés Perea Vargas‎, Brayan Véjar‎

    Back to the OP. Professor Spooner wrote: "I get the impression that the name is more commonly used in England, and many Americans are unfamiliar with it."

    I think we've shown above that it's *not* the case that "many Americans are unfamiliar" with the name Brian; we are, rather, a nation of particularly bad spellers!

    I would ask Professor Spooner this question: "When you are introduced as 'Brian' to an American, does he or she look blank and ask that your name be repeated? Or do you simply find your first name to be frequently misspelled?"

    Like all the other Brians in the room, and Michaels, apparently, too.

    On the latter note, it's worth mentioning that the Irish first name Micheal (Mícheál) is pronounced completely differently from Michael. I presume that most of you know of the excellent pronunciation site It's very reliable; only native speakers are allowed to "vote" on a pronunciation. Here are a number of pronunciations of Mícheál:

  33. Kate Bunting said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 6:06 am

    @Michael Watts Not so innovative. According to 'The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names', the spelling Rachael was common in the 17th century.

  34. Michael Watts said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 9:03 am

    The 17th century is still very recent, considering the name is from the Old Testament.

  35. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 24, 2020 @ 9:09 am

    Kate Bunting: in the 17th century English was generally all over the place. It didn't become regularized until the 18th.

  36. Trogluddite said,

    January 27, 2020 @ 11:19 am

    @Philip Taylor: "…when I seek to address that person I dredge up the memory of the sound and then spell it as I normally would."
    After many years of people guessing incorrectly which spelling to use, I have become accustomed to giving my first name to call-centre operators etc. as "Steven-with-a-V". Unfortunately, this doesn't always resolve the ambiguity – on at least one occasion rather leading, rather ironically, to me being asked how my "other" name, "Willoughby", should be spelled!

    What has always mystified me, given that Steven and Stephen are both such common names in my neck of the woods, is how rarely I get asked which is correct. I can understand people using the spelling with which they're most familiar when there's no convenient way to confirm it; but it seems that many people jump to conclusions without recalling that they've ever been aware of any alternative.

  37. pjcamp said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 2:03 am

    I have a friend who was once manager of a restaurant called Oh Brian's! There were some credit card fliers at the entrance that called it Oh Brains!

    I've frequently had that reaction to my brains. Oh Brains! What are you up to now?

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