Malaprop(er nouns)?

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Joe Biden recently said "the president of Mexico" when he meant "the president of Egypt". A couple of days earlier, he said "Mitterand" when he meant "Macron". Of course this fed into the flurry about his age, which was both-siderized by references to Donald Trump's calling Victor Orbán "the great leader of Turkey" when he should have said "Hungary", saying "Obama" when he should have said "Biden", saying "Nikki Haley" when he meant "Nancy Pelosi", and so on. And there've been lots of references to similar substitutions by other public figures like Sean Hannity.

However, my focus in this post is not political or journalistic, though there's plenty to be said about both of those topics. Rather, it's a question of psycholinguistic terminology. Similar proper-noun substitutions are common — but what should we call them?

The more general category of speech errors consisting of word substitutions has come to be known as "Fay-Cutler malapropisms", a reference to David Fay and Anne Cutler, "Malapropisms and the structure of the mental lexicon", Linguistic Inquiry 1977:

Two centuries ago, Sheridan invented the delightful character of Mrs. Malaprop, who had an unfailing ability to use the wrong word to the greatest effect. Since Sheridan, the malapropism has been a standard tool of comic writers, especially useful for indicating
inferior intellectual ability of a speaker (as when Archie Bunker says "We need a few laughs to break up the monogamy"). But not all errors involving substitution of one word for another result from ignorance of the correct usage; on the contrary,
inadvertent use of the wrong word is a common variety of speech error.

In this article we will examine such word substitution errors (which we will call malapropisms, although they do not arise, as Mrs. Malapropos did, from ignorance); we will show that they reveal some interesting aspects of the structure of the mental dictionary used in producing and understanding speech.

Such word substitution errors often involve the names of people, places, organizations and so on — but as far as I know, there's no technical term for that specific  subcategory of substitution.

There's a related kind of speech production error, where the speaker has a meaning in mind — most often a proper name — but can't quite think of the word, though they can go on at length with descriptive information. This is called the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon, or TOT for short. And as far as I can tell from the literature, TOT phenomena increase with age, whereas name substitutions don't.  Thus Lori E. James, "Specific effects of aging on proper name retrieval: Now you see them, now you don't" The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 2006:

​​Present results indicate that theories of name memory and aging will have to distinguish mechanisms for TOTs versus other recall failures and will have to explain why aging disproportionately increases TOTs but not other errors for names.

I'll add that there's an interestingly different story about why TOT episodes tend to increase with age, in Michael Ramscar, Peter Hendrix, Cyrus Shaoul, Petar Milin, and Harald Baayen, "The myth of cognitive decline: Non‐linear dynamics of lifelong learning", 2014:

[P]atterns of performance reflect the information-processing costs that must inevitably be incurred as knowledge is acquired. Once the cost of processing this extra information is controlled for in studies of human performance, findings that are usually taken to suggest declining cognitive capacities can be seen instead to support little more than the unsurprising idea that choosing between or recalling items becomes more difficult as their numbers increase.

There's a story in there about why normal aging makes it harder to name pictures, but not to picture names — see "Too much information", 1/14/2014…





  1. Dave said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 3:14 pm

    Glad to learn "TOT phenomena increase with age"; here I was blaming it on what's-his-name's (you know, that german neuropathologist…) disease.

  2. GeorgeW said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 3:27 pm

    A memory expert in a recent NYTimes op-ed, distinguished "retrieval failures" from "memory failures." Biden's recent speech errors are the former.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 4:13 pm

    Analyzing any particular utterance as this sort of error presupposes that the person had at one point known the "correct" name and it is presumptively stored somewhere in their memory, but something went awry in the retrieval process. In many cases, that is clearly accurate – Pres. Biden has certainly at some point been told that Macron is now president of France and at other points has accurately recalled that. But in many other cases that may not be accurate.

    For example, I would not necessarily expect a generic U.S. president of unquestioned cognitive abilities to be constantly updating his mental database of who is currently in charge of things in Kazakhstan or Uruguay, as that would not necessarily be the best use of his finite time and attention. One would expect specific briefing on that before a meeting or speech in which it was anticipated that Kazakh or Uruguayan matters would arise, but if such a topic came up unexpectedly the president might well randomly recall the name of the fellow who had been in charge in the relevant country three or seven years previously but be genuinely unaware of whether that fellow was still in office or indeed still alive, having never had occasion to update his knowledge. In terms of recent Biden-uttered errors, Mitterand for Macron raised eyebrows because Mitterand has been dead for coming on 30 years. But on the other hand, since both names start with the same letter, the confusion seems less alarming – maybe the "French presidents" file-drawer of memory is organized alphabetically rather than chronologically or something like that.

    On the other hand, that doesn't explain Biden uttering "Helmut Kohl" when he apparently meant to refer to Angela Merkel. Holders at different points in time of the same office, but not chronologically adjacent, no phonetic similarity of name, not even the same sex. So that seems odder. If an elderly family member mixes up the name of a niece with the name of a sister-in-law who is that niece's mother (to describe a mix-up I have recently witnessed), that's consistent with being being just one increment away in terms of how the mental files are organized, and is thus a comparatively "obvious" mistake if a mistake is to be made. But if that same family member were instead to mix up the name of that niece with that of a male cousin on a different branch of the family tree, with no phonetic similarity of name, that would be more concerning, I should think.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 4:23 pm

    Separately, the Ramscar et al. story that myl refers to reminds me of a quotation I recently saw that was attributed to Joshua Whatmough (1897-1964), onetime chairman of the Linguistics department at Harvard. Speaking to a group of students he allegedly said: "Forgive me if I do not remember your names. To remember them would cause me to forget something more important."

    myl must as an undergraduate have known people who had known Whatmough, but I'm not sure whether he's in a position to verify the quotation or at least say whether it is or isn't broadly consistent with Whatmough's reputation.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 4:44 pm

    @J.W. Brewer:

    I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1965, so Whatmough was already gone.

    The cited quotation is new to me. But it reminds of another quotation, attributed to William Archibald Spooner: "Tell me, was it you or your brother who was killed in the war?"

  6. Buzz79 said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 5:27 pm

    I don't know if this is related but I had a colleague named David Chester whose name I had a very hard time learning. The reason was that there was a journalist named David Gregory and every time I tried to recall David Chester, my mind would spit out David Gregory. It was like there was a single slot in my memory allocated to first name David, last name also a valid first name, and it was already filled. I finally learned his name but even then I would frequently come up with "David Gregory, no that's not right, David Chester."

  7. Julian Hook said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 5:31 pm

    Some of Trump's utterances seem to involve something other than the simple substitution of one name for another. For example, I don't think it's really accurate to say that he said "Nikki Haley" when he meant "Nancy Pelosi," because that comment occurred in the context of bashing Haley. There was no reason for him to be saying anything about Pelosi at that moment, but somehow his criticisms of Haley veered off into a description that he had previously used for Pelosi. That's not name-substitution so much as insult-substitution.

  8. Jerry Packard said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 5:37 pm

    In aphasia (and more generally as well), these word substitution errors are called_paraphasias_, and you can have phonological paraphasias and semantic paraphasias, depending on whether the unintended word is phonetically or semantically related to the target word.

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 6:36 pm

    @Jerry Packard: In aphasia (and more generally as well), these word substitution errors are called_paraphasias_

    With respect to the categories of errors covered, "paraphasia" is a much more abstract term than word-substitution errors in general, or proper-noun substitutions more specifically: "A paraphasia is the production of an unintended sound within a word, or of a whole word or phrase. It can be the substitution of one sound for another sound, using the wrong word, or transposing sounds within a long word."

    And with respect to the cause of the errors, "paraphasia" is much more specific, denoting a symptom of aphasia.

  10. Seth said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 7:32 pm

    @J.W. Brewer – I think there's also cognitive effects where if one member of a list has a very strong personal association, it's highly likely to be retrieved from the list in an error. Thus if for some reason Biden had worked with Helmut Kohl extensively, or had been doing detailed European foreign policy work when he (Kohl) was in office, that name is what he'll always pull up as "first" association for leader of Germany. And Biden will need to devote mental effort to replace it with the correct value.

  11. D.O. said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 9:20 pm

    What interested me in Biden's substitution of "Mexico" for "Egypt" as a country which Sisi is the president of is that the only logical reason for this substitution I can think of is that Mexico is south of US and Egypt is south of Israel and in Biden's mental geography Israel is the focus country in the region (not unreasonable considering how much time recently he devoted to it) and everything else is measured with respect to it. "Egypt is Mexico of Israel" so to say. Of course, if no logic was involved in the production of this malapropism, Biden might have received a recent briefing about Mexico and it is the first name of the country that popped out into his mind.

  12. Avi Rappoport said,

    February 14, 2024 @ 9:57 pm

    I have a weird version of this with names of men in my family (not women). When talking about them I fairly often say the name of another man, and then try to say the right one but another name comes out, and I end up going down a list in no particular order. I have only four male close relatives. Very odd!

  13. mg said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 12:38 am

    @JW Brewer – Not everyone differentiates as strongly between genders as you do. It wouldn't surprise me at all for a political leader to have one mental file drawer for all PMs of a given country, regardless of whether they were male or female.

    My father used to refer to my brother and our dog (who did not have a "people name") by each other's names. I find human vs. animal more surprising that mixing up male vs. female names.

    It's also important to remember (as pointed out in the article) that Biden has had a spoken language disability since childhood, which means that a certain amount of his language production processing is taken up dealing with that.

  14. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 3:55 am

    I have a similar problem as Avi Rappoport, but even more specific: I substitute my wife's name for my daughter's and vice versa. I had no similar problem before the latter's birth.

  15. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 5:13 am

    @ JW Brewer: There's plenty of room for a mean joke about Merkel in there.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 5:43 am

    Having just read this thread when it first appeared, I then started reading Ian Rankin's Strip Jack, only to find in the introduction (by way of explaning his choice of name for the book)

    I'd been looking for something which would reflect the playfulness of Knots & Crosses and Hide & Seek […]

    I had never previously encountered Knots & Crosses as a Malapropism for Noughts and Crosses, so the uncanny timing co-incidence really struck me, but an even greater co-incidence then occurred — intending to type Knots & Crosses (I was literally copying from the printed introduction), I actually typed Knuth & Crosses, which must surely be a genuine example of a "Malaprop[er] noun", "Knuth" being a word that I type far more frequently than "knot".

  17. David Morris said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 6:43 am

    My grandmother once ran through the names of her other five grandchildren before she got to mine. I'm the only male.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 7:54 am

    @Seth: that theory sounds plausible – i.e. that if Biden's experience dealing with German leaders or German issues had been disproportionately when Kohl was in office then Kohl would be the entry in the "front" of the "various prior German chancellors" drawer regardless of chronological sequence. Although of course since Kohl left office more than 25 years ago, that's not super-helpful for Biden since it underscores the "he's really old" point by bringing up a "he's living in the now-distant past" angle that fits with pre-existing stereotypes about the elderly.

    In my own family-specific experience, people who mix up the names of other family members tend to mix up names of members of the same sex although I certainly accept that it may be otherwise in other families. And there may be other structural factors at play – in the case of my own children, the younger of my daughters is older than the oldest of my sons, which may be an important factor in why I am more likely to mix up the girls' names with each other and the boys' names with each other but not get members of the two subsets confused. It might be otherwise if those subgroups were mixed with each other in the chronological distribution. Mixing up the names of children and pets doesn't strike me as odd – they're all in a coherent mental category like "creatures in my household whose names I frequently call out loud when I want them to stop doing something they shouldn't be doing." At least assuming the pet is a dog or something like that. Reaching for the name of a child and coming up with the name of a goldfish might be harder to explain by that mechanism.

    Perhaps relatedly, there are stories of uncertain historicity of elderly British officers who in the heat of battle in the Crimean War referred to their Russian foes as "the French" and of elderly formerly-Confederate U.S. officers in the Spanish-American War who referred to their Spanish foes as "the Yankees."

  19. Mark P said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 10:14 am

    I have noticed an increasing occurrence of the TOT phenomenon. I find it odd, although perhaps I should not, that it seems to occur more frequently with a particular word. I almost always have to really dig to remember “altruism.” I came up with a name that seems to help, Al Trusim. It would probably help more ifTruism were an actual name.

    When it comes to names, for years when I was young my mother often called me Henmark. My older brother’s name was Henry.

  20. Robert Coren said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 10:26 am

    Tangentially: Mark, we apparently overlapped; I arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate in the fall of 1964. (With around 1000 people per class, it's not altogether surprising that neither of us was aware of this overlap.)

  21. Terry Hunt said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 10:34 am

    @ Philip Taylor – to avoid possible confusion for readers who might be unfamiliar with the Rankin ouvre: Knots & Crosses is the title of his first Inspector Rebus novel (it's on a shelf within arm's reach as I type). The two things are elements in the plot, so although their titular usage is a deliberate pun on "Noughts and Crosses", it isn't a Malapropism on the part of either Rankin or any character in the book.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 11:08 am

    Thank you for that information, Terry. But as the text the playfulness of Knots & Crosses and Hide & Seek […] occurs in the (factual) introduction to Strip Jack, in the context of "children's and adults' games and pastimes, is that not of itself evidence that his use of "Knots" in this context is indeed an inadvertent Malapropism, undoubtedly trigged by his earlier use of Knots & Crosses (again I typed "Knuth & Crosses", before correcting it) as the punning title of a previous book ?

  23. Terry K. said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 12:25 pm

    @Philip Taylor.

    He's referring to the first two books in the Series, while (according to you in your original comment) explaining the choice of title for a later book in the series.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 12:48 pm

    Ah, so Hide & Seek (with no embedded pun) was his second book in the "Rebus" series ? In that case, all is clear and I stand corrected. Thank you, Terry ! Incidentally, do you also know why "Rebus". Is this, too, a sort-of pun on the word game of the same name ?

  25. Haamu said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 2:08 pm

    Had it not been a deliberate pun, I would have classed Knots & Crosses as an eggcorn rather than a malapropism. Am I wrong?

  26. Cervantes said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 2:09 pm

    Onanmasticism? (That joke may be too obscure.)

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 5:25 pm

    Probably clear to someone who named his budgerigar "Onan" (because he threw his seed upon the ground) [or at least on the floor of his cage].

  28. Lee Gugerty said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 11:13 pm

    I'm wondering about the cause of these word substitutions?

    Is it due to working memory overload during speech production?

    My understanding is that people who stutter (like Biden) have to devote a not insignificant portion of their WM capacity to planning how to avoid known difficult words. I find that I make these errors when I get a bit stressed/emotional about the topic (eg, Politics!). When my mother was flustered, she sometimes would run through the names of 3 or 4 of her 5 boys before she got the the right one.

  29. Martha said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 12:54 am

    For my mom, the names of my sister and I, my nieces, the dogs, and sometimes even whatever cousin she has recently spoken to could get thrown out before she gets to the right one. I always tell my nieces we're all in my mom's brain as "people I take care of."

    My dad has always gotten my sister and my aunt's (his sister) names mixed up. It might have something to do with my aunt's name starting with the same syllable that my sister's ends with.

  30. Seth said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 2:22 am

    @J.W. Brewer – Checking history (!), Helmut Kohl was leader of (West) Germany when the Berlin Wall came down and Germany reunified. That was likely a major event in Biden's political life, and might be the strongest personal memory he has of German issues. I agree the mistake certainly was "bad optics". But I don't think it was a dementia kind of error, as opposed to a much less serious general aging association-recall type of cognitive mixup.

  31. Philip Anderson said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 2:25 pm

    Although Angela Merkel did not succeed Helmut Kohl, I had to look up the name of the Chancellor who came between them.

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