Ask Language Log: analogical substitution of names

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Barbara Phillips Long writes:

I am on vacation with all but one of my siblings, some of their children and both of mine, my parents and some other relatives in a beach house in North Carolina.

I've already called my sister by my daughter's name and my daughter by my sister's name. Other people at the house have had similar problems. We were talking about it today and I suggested it was a problem based on categories — perhaps we think "nearest female relative" and the name of sister comes out instead of daughter.

Then my brother pointed out that there have been times he's gone to yell at his son for making mischief, only to hear the dog's name come out instead. That made me wonder if recently used names are in some sort of buffer that is more muscle memory than brain memory — something like playing piano or typing. In our family, at least, the name confusion happens when both names have been used recently — if I haven't talked to my sister for two months, I don't use her name accidentally when I refer to my daughter.

So I ran a couple of searches on Language Log and the archive to see if there was a term for this particular confusion and if there is a simple explanation, but I didn't find an answer.

I imagine that everyone has had this experience. Certainly, at least, it rings a bell with me.

My mother, for example, was not generally given to malapropisms and similar word-substitution errors, but she 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.

And I've produced similar substitutions myself more than once. But despite the familiarity of the phenomenon, it doesn't have a name, at least not one that I know about. If you know a term for this kind of analogical substitution of names, please let me know and I'll tell the world.

Here's what I wrote about word-substitution errors in the lecture notes on Speech Production and Perception from Linguistics 001:

… word-level slips of all kinds obey the syntactic category rule: the target (i.e. the word replaced) and the substituting word are almost always of the same syntactic category. Nouns replace nouns, verbs replace verbs, and so on.

The syntactic category rule is by far the strongest influence on word-level errors. There are other influences — for instances, the substituting word tends to be related in meaning and in sound to the target — but these are generally less strong.

When the substituting word comes completely from outside the utterance — rather than being an exchange of words or an anticipation or perseveration of words within the utterance — this is called a "non-contextual word substitution." In such cases, it is common for the substitute and the target to be semantically and pragmatically similar. For instance, U.S. President Gerald Ford once toasted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat "and the great people of Israel — Egypt, excuse me." However, even in such non-contextual word substitutions, there are other influences besides semantic similarity, such as association with nearby words, or similarity in pronunciation. For example, in one of the speech-error corpora, a speaker refers to "Lizst's second Hungarian restaurant" instead of "Lizst's second Hungarian rhapsody." Restaurant and rhapsody are not particularly similar in meaning, but both are associated with Hungarian — and both are three-syllable words with initial stress that start with /r/.

I suspect that in the vast psycholinguistic literature on speech errors, the phenomenon of analogical name substitution has been noted, studied, and named. But it's hard to find the references without the term, and hard to find the term without the references.

[Barbara Zimmer writes:

Hoo boy! This one rang a bell!

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!


[Robert E. Harris writes:

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. Mother always used Kitty for the cat.

I sometimes call our daughter Pat and my wife Joan. I do not do a string, I use direct substitution. This started about 30 years ago, after our daughter went away to college.

OK, so we have good evidence that this phenomenon is common, and an emerging suggestion that strings of more than two names might be more commonly produced by women than by men (or maybe such strings are just more commonly noticed when produced by women). But we still don't have a term of art from psycholinguistics for this particular kind of word-substitution error.]
[Barbara Partee writes:

Your piece on name substitutions rings a vicarious bell. Emmon has to correct me if I get this wrong, but I know his 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!" The best part came when in her 80's she wrote a book about her life, and Emmon proofread it for her, and he found that the dedication was set to be "To my children, Stanley, David, Austin, Sven, Betty, and David".

4/18/2008 — Emmon emends:

I have to check this when I am home again (writing from OSU) but I think the last one was "Austin" or else I've done my own s-o-n thing!

And from an anonymous reader:

I am quite familiar with the phenomenon you describe—sometimes it seems the first name out of my mother's mouth is never the right one. (More anecdotal evidence that women do this more commonly?) My name is often fourth or fifth in the chain of names I'm called, coming after my father and sister (almost always), my uncles (usually), and various other relatives (sometimes). If I didn't share a name with one of my uncles, I imagine the average chain length might be even longer.

I should note, however, that this only occurs when my mother is addressing someone, especially when flustered or upset, and does not indicate any more general inability to remember names. On the contrary, she has a remarkable knowledge of genealogy and is able to readily provide the names and relations of far-flung relatives, including those related by marriage (and sometimes their families as well).


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