Name chain mailbag

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Yesterday's post on analogical substitution of names has brought in quite a bit of email, but no information about an existing term for this phenomenon, and so I'm beginning to think that there isn't one. At least not a scientific name, and not a common name in English either. This is yet another demonstration that people can have thoughts for which they don't have (single) words. However, it's inconvenient to have conversations about things that you don't have terms for. Therefore, pending a better suggestion, I'll call these things "name chains".

The morning's email did bring several variations on the phenomenological theme.

Jeremy Cherfas wrote:

I'm surprised nobody seems to have mentioned an arena in which name substitution can lead to real trouble: non-family relationships.

More than once I have called my current Squeeze by the name of a former wife. But she's very forgiving (unlike the former wife). And a former wife's second husband shared my first name, which at least made things easier on that score.

I've heard, first-hand, a couple of similar occurrences, one of which led a friend to insist that "Honey" would be the only name he'd ever use from now on.

I'll bet this is a rich vein to mine.

Jeremy's partner's tolerance strikes me as unusual; but the phenomenon is certainly a familiar one. (Though is "current Squeeze" really a "non-family relationship"?)

Jens B describes a less stereotypical case, where he suffered from a symmetric or reciprocal displacement of a couple's names,

when referring to two fellow students in the department who were not in my immediate circle of friends. They were a couple and both worked outside my field.

For about a year at least I found it impossible to remember their individual names. I would consistently have to wave my arms about and say "Jack's girlfriend" and "Jill's boyfriend" when I had to refer to them. My lines were crossed to speak, so the name I could access was always the wrong one.

[Licia C. writes:

I was really intrigued by your post on analogical substitution of names. You might like to know that it also happens in other languages. I am Italian and my grandmother used to have to go through the whole list of her six daughters' names before saying mine. It occurred all the time she was addressing a close relative and it annoyed her enormously. Her daughters are now also doing it – it seems the older one gets, the more likely it happens. I can think of quite a few other people who do it, and they all seem to be women. And I would say it mainly occurs with relatives' names.

It was interesting to read that in English both male and female names can end up in the chain of names, whereas in Italian there would always be a match of grammatical gender and natural gender, so if a female relative is being addressed, she would never be called by a male names.

And Laura Petelle writes:

Re: partner tolerance, I bet you'd actually find more of this than you'd think, especially among older people who have been widowed. My grandfather routinely refers to his second wife, to whom he's been married for 25 years, by his deceased first wife's name (to whom he was married for … about 25 years). She just takes it in stride.

In my family we used to call it "grandpa's name thing" but then changed it to "Petelle family name syndrome" when my father began doing the same thing. Now I do it, and my next brother as well. (My sister and youngest brother don't seem to have the problem … or at least not yet.)

I've noticed these events fall into two categories: First, one that one of your correspondents mentioned, where you are reaching for a family member's name and come up with someone emotionally nearby — calling the second wife by the first wife's name; mixing up my brothers; running through your children's names one after the other. (I even sometimes call my husband by one of my brothers' names.) I think this happens more commonly when the speaker is frustrated or distracted, but it also appears to happen at random moments. Second, names that tend to cross when you get to know multiple people at about the same time in your life (which might just be a variation on "someone emotionally next door to someone else"). I worked with two women in college, Michelle and Shannon, for four years, very closely; I met them at about the same time, in the same circumstances; and my senior year I was still calling them each other's names.

Calling someone by a similar-sounding name seems like a different error to me (from inside my own brain, anyway) — that's a simple memory failure, when you call a Katherine "Katelyn" instead. Name chains or name substitutions feel different; frequently I KNOW I'm about to pop out with the wrong name, but I can't move to the right one unless I say the wrong one first. (I feel like I've read about this phenomenon in other speech areas, maybe with respect to stuttering?) Other times I know I'm running through a list until I hit the right term, almost like when you're seeking a synonym and you throw out words nearby to it until you either hit on it or someone else finds the right word for you; that feeling that it's "on the tip of your tongue" but stuck behind a brain block. This happens most often when I'm calling my siblings or pets by the wrong names — perhaps it's just a variation of version one, where from long practice I know it's faster to just run through the list?

My students are used to me doing this in class and tease me about it. In the classroom I try not to say the wrong name to get to the right one, but I stop and am silent for a moment trying to "reboot" my brain, if you will. (This is, incidentally, a very stressful-feeling pause for me, even though I do it consciously; the stress is from the struggle of getting to the right word.) My well-behaved classes simply wait for me to start again; my rowdy class now shouts, "C'mon, you can do it! Out with it!" (Which is cute but not always helpful.)

If I make them have nametags on their desks and can see the names, the problem goes away completely.

This is a very interesting topic — I am extremely curious to know how the mental misfire works in other people with the same problem!


[Stacy Hacker writes:

Instead of listing both of us, my mother combines my and my brother's names (Stacy and David) into "Stavid", no matter whose attention she wants. Anything explaining this?
Also, my father and paternal grandmother (and late grandfather, a while ago) often call me by my aunt's name, but I excuse this because they sound similar and we look alike.

And Ed Keer contributes this:

n reference to Jeremy Cherfas, I remmebr hearing that Benjamin Franklin advised taking a mistress with the same name as your wife to avoid this issue. I can't find it anywhere on the web, so maybe it's not true…


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