Name chain nomenclature

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In a couple of recent posts (here and here), I discussed cases where someone substitutes one person's name for another, on the basis of a relational analogy or associative similarity: sister for daughter, child for pet, ex-spouse for current spouse, and so on. A particularly interesting extension is the phenomenon of chains of incorrect names, often arranged in chronological or other stereotyped order. Some examples from readers' email:

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.
… 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.
… 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!”
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).
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.

I wondered whether there is any existing term — scientific or informal — for this chaining of family-members' names. It seems that the answer is "no", and so I've tentatively staked a terminological claim with the term "name chain". (If you felt the need for a term with more gravitas, you could try "onomastic catenation". But why would you, in a world where physicists spend billions on equipment to distinguish among the categories of quark known as up and down, charm and strange, top and bottom, and biologists pursue the sonic hedgehog gene?)

The scientific literatures has hundreds of papers, in several overlapping disciplines, dealing with the production and perception of proper names. I knew some of this literature to start with, and I've dipped into a dozen papers and review articles on the subject for the purposes of this post, and I've come up terminologically empty. There's a lot of interesting discussion about the extent to which names might be represented and processed differently from common nouns, about dissociations between proper and common nouns in aphasic syndromes, about differences between familiar names and new names, about the possible role of the right hemisphere in organizing "personally relevant environmental stimuli", and so on; but I didn't find any specific reference to the phenomenon of name chains, nor any existing terminology.

A clinician would use a term like semantic paraphasia or semantic paraphasic substitution to describe substitution of one person's name for another. But these same terms would be used for any other case where a word of related meaning is substituted — briefcase for suitcase, brush for comb, window for door, pan for ladle. And a typical (instance of) paraphasia is a a single substitution, not a chain of substitutions.

Murray Grossman suggested to me that the chaining of wrong names is a bit like what clinicians call conduit d'approche. This is a French term literally meaning "approach behavior"; one neuroscience glossary defines it as "(Goodglass and Kaplan, 1983) patient is aware of his/her paraphrasitic errors and will produce repeated approximations of the intended word, as if he is trying to untangle it".

Here's an example cited in Pelagie M. Beeson and Kathryn A. Bayles, Aphasia, in Paul David Nussbaum, Ed., Handbook of Neuropsychology and Aging, p. 303:

About the car, you mean, and the … and a dog and they're in the … and one of the kids, I guess it is in the … I don't know what you'd call … I gues that's a late, lake … Sa … san … I can't think what it is. And this one's fishing, Kank, no, I don't know what she's doin'. and they're having a pinick, pinick, pick, picnic picnickick, picnic. Is that right? And that's what they're here about, I guess. And what else would a … I can't what she .. and a kank, Kank, kank, kank, no it isn't either … Sink, kank, kant, I can't say it, kank, kant, kink, kink, sank, sink. I can't say it.

What we're calling "name chains" are generally much more orderly than this — of course the people who produce them are not clinically aphasic, either. In fact, in my experience, they're quite verbally adept and fluent in other respects, perhaps even unusually so.

In my search for prior art, I even went back to The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), where Sigmund Freud devoted several chapters to slips of the tongue. Though I didn't re-read the whole thing, a quick browse didn't turn up any specific reference to the type of name-substitution chains that we're talking about. However, this famous work does involve some discussion of related phenomena, and also a point of terminological history, that may be worth a detour.

The word-substitutions that interested Freud were contrary to the conscious wishes of the person speaking or writing, and in fact were often subversive of those wishes. Freud believed that such "slips" are messages from the subconscious, or at least clues to its mechanisms, smuggled out past the censoring functions of the conscious mind.

His first chapter ("Forgetting of Proper Names") centers on an insight into the mechanisms of "false recollection", which occurred to him in connection with something very much like the chains of name-substitutions we've been talking about:

I was led to examine exhaustively the phenomenon of temporary forgetfulness through the observation of certain peculiarities, which, although not general, can, nevertheless, be seen clearly in some cases. In these there is not only forgetfulness, but also false recollection: he who strives for the escaped name brings to consciousness others — substitutive names — which, although immediately recognized as false, nevertheless obtrude themselves with great tenacity. The process which should lead to the reproduction of the lost name is, as it were, displaced, and thus brings one to an incorrect substitute.

Now it is my assumption that the displacement is not left to psychic arbitrariness, but that it follows lawful and rational paths. In other words, I assume that the substitutive name (or names) stands in direct relation to the lost name, and I hope, if I succeed in demonstrating this connection, to throw light on the origin of the forgetting of names.

He analyzes in detail a particular episode in his own life:

In the example which I selected for analysis in 1898 I vainly strove to recall the name of the master who made the imposing frescoes of the "Last Judgment" in the dome of Orvieto. Instead of the lost name — Signorelli — two other names of artists — Botticelli and Boltraffio — obtruded themselves, names which my judgment immediately and definitely rejected as being incorrect. When the correct name was imparted to me by an outsider I recognized it at once without any hesitation.

I won't recapitulate his analysis in full here. It involves an immediately-previous discussion of "the customs of the Turks living in Bosnia and Herzegovina", where Freud had considered introducing a medical anecdote about how Turks "value the sexual pleasure above all else, and at sexual disturbances merge into an utter despair which strangely contrasts with their resignation at the peril of losing their lives". He decided not to mention this story, "because I did not wish to touch upon such a delicate theme in conversation with a stranger". But it led him to some additional private reflections on death, sexuality, and the recent suicide of one of his patients, which he had learned about during a brief stay in the town of Trafoi in Herzegovina.

He provides a diagram of the relationships involved (you'll have to read the chapter to get an account of all of the links):

And he concludes that:

I can no longer conceive the forgetting of the name Signorelli as an accidental occurrence. I must recognize in this process the influence of a motive. There were motives which actuated the interruption in the communication of my thoughts (concerning the customs of the Turks, etc.), and which later influenced me to exclude from my consciousness the thought connected with them, and which might have led to the message concerning the incident in Trafoi — that is, I wanted to forget something, I repressed something. To be sure, I wished to forget something other than the name of the master of Orvieto; but this other thought brought about an associative connection between itself and this name, so that my act of volition missed the aim, and I forgot the one against my will, while I intentionally wished to forget the other. The disinclination to recall directed itself against the one content; the inability to remember appeared in another.

Freud's general term for such errors was Fehlleistung. This is a German compound whose second element is Leistung ("action"), and whose first elemant is Fehl ("fault"; apparently most often found in a few phrases such as fehl am platz = "out of place", schlagen fehl = "to misfire, fail", ohne Fehl und Tadel = "without fault or blame").

Freud's first English translator, James Strachey (whose translation I've quoted above), seems to have invented the pseudo-Greek scientism parapraxis as a translation for Freud's Fehlleistung. This word has never really caught on — the familiar colloquial label is "Freudian slip."

Strachey's choice was a rhetorically interesting one, since Fehlleistung is a more or less ordinary German compound word, meaning something like "blunder" or "failure". Thus in a recent news story about a controversy over a plan to add an elevator to a public space ("Architekt findet Aufzug 'unmöglich'", RP Online, 4/17/2008), the phrase architektonische Fehlleistung means something like "architectural blunder", without any implication that repression of unconscious obelisk-construction desires is to blame:

Berten fürchtet um den Ruf der Architektengemeinschaft: „Eine solche architektonische Fehlleistung würde in der Öffentlichkeit zwangsläufig den Architekten zugeschrieben.“

Berten fears for the reputation of the architectural profession: "Such an architectural blunder would inevitably be attrbuted to the architect".

In fact, since Fehlleistung is such an ordinary word, the German term for Freudian slip is Freudsche Fehlleistung.

Strachey probably modeled parapraxis on pre-existing medical terms such as paraphasia (OED gloss "Disordered speech characterized by unintentional substitution of incorrect words or syllables") and paragraphia ("The substitution in written language of one word, syllable, or letter for another, usually as a sign of aphasia"). The OED has citations going back to 1878:

1878 tr. H. W. von Ziemssen Cycl. Pract. Med. XIV. 789 Morbid paragraphia, like morbid paraphasia [Ger. Paraphasie], presents itself in mild and in severe forms.
1881 A. FLINT Treat. Princ. Med. (ed. 5) 657 A difficulty of speech may consist in an inability to use the proper words to express the mental ideas… This difficulty is sometimes distinguished as paraphasia.

Presumably Strachey (and Freud) chose not to use the existing terms because Freud discusses not only slips of the tongue and pen, but also other sorts of "faulty actions". Here, for example, is part of his discussion of keys in chapter 8:

A similar experience is reported by Dr. Hans Sachs of Vienna: "I always carry two keys with me, one for the door of my office and one for my residence. They are not by any means easily interchanged, as the office key is at least three times as big as my house key. Besides, I carry the first in my trouser pocket and the other in my vest pocket. Yet it often happened that I noticed on reaching the door that while ascending the stairs I had taken out the wrong key. I decided to undertake a statistical examination; as I was daily in about the same emotional state when I stood before both doors, I thought that the interchanging of the two keys must show a regular tendency, if they were differently determined psychically. Observation of later occurrences showed that I regularly took out my house key before the office door. Only on one occasion was this reversed: I came home tired, knowing that I would find there a guest. I made an attempt to unlock the door with the, naturally too big, office key."

Freud's ideas about the causes of slips of the tongue and pen (and key) are hard to disprove, since the hypothetized unconscious motivations can be arbitrarily subtle and indirect. And his general notion that "the displacement is not left to psychic arbitrariness, but that it follows lawful and rational paths" is in any case obviously true, for name chains as for other speech errors. But his emphasis on the role of repressed desires has long since been abandoned, at least by the psychologists and linguists who study such things.

[Update — Alissa Hoyme writes in with a new variant:

I remembered how I have a variation of this tonight after doing it while talking to a friend. I substitute the names of languages I have studied. I have studied German, Russian, and Finnish, and while trying to say something about one of them, I will very often say a different name, sometimes even a chain like "In Finnish, no, Russian, no, German…". I don't actually do it much with people's names, though my mother does all the time. I also don't do it with names of languages I don't speak at all. I am not sure if there is any pattern to how I substitute the names, though I have a feeling there is.

And Charles Belov writes in with some observations that may contain a clue:

My name chains have typically been asymmetrical.

I've called both female manager A and female manager B by the name A. Both were about the same height and build and of WASP-ish appearance.

I've called both male co-worker C and male co-worker D by the name C. Both were about the same height and build and of WASP-ish appearance.

I've called both member of a gay male couple E and member of the same couple F by the name E. Both are ethnic Filipino, and about the same height, but with different builds.

I've called both female co-worker G and male co-worker H by the name G. Both were about the same height and build and ethnic Chinese.

This has happened with others as well–I once called co-worker J by co-worker I's name; both were white and tall–but these ones were particularly persistent. I'm only still in contact with the third and fourth pair. The name chain seems to have dissipated with the fourth pair (G/H) but the third pair (E/F) name chain seems particularly persistent, and I've had to put in a mental hook to pause and make sure I'm using the right name before I address this guy.

It does seem to be linked by a combination of race, height, and gender, but as I know many people with such similarities, I don't know why these particular people are getting linked in my brain. But once a name chain forms, I find it very hard to eradicate.

By the way, name chain seems to imply that one proceeds along the chain until one comes to the correct name. I've not necessarily been able to do that.

The clue, I think, is the observation that "once a name chain forms, I find it very hard to eradicate". Perhaps there is a self-reinforcing aspect to these substitution errors, which sometimes turns a random, natural speech error into a sort of habit that gets harder to break the more it happens. ]

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