We’ve all been there. An old friend approaches you at a party and you can’t remember their name. Or you accidentally call your younger brother by your older brother’s name. Or you say “I love you, Idris Elba” in the middle of sex, but your partner’s actual name is Tim. Or Tom. Or Ted.
I used to worry this might be a sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s, but studies show I might not be as interesting as I think I am. The scientific journal Memory and Cognition recently concluded that we all do this, and that it might actually be a sign of affection:
“A mother likely associates her children with one another. When attempting to retrieve the name of her son, she is more likely to inadvertently select the name of her daughter than the name of a colleague due to the close connections between her children’s names in her semantic network. In other words, your mom calls you by your sibling’s name because she loves both of you, and associates you with one another.”
This is a real blow to all of us older siblings who thought our parents loved us the most. Thanks a lot, science.
Unfortunately, these findings don’t help us avoid uncomfortable social interactions. The other day I bumped into an old co-worker Amanda at Trader Joe’s and called her Susan. Then I told her I got her name wrong because I love her. Now she thinks I’m an asshole and a creep.
There was a time in my life when I never said any names at all. Better to be safe and say “hello, friend,” than risk being wrong and feeling awkward around that person every time you see them again for the rest of your lives.
But there’s only so many times you can say “hey you,” “look at YOU,” and “oh, youuuu.” At some point, that “you” person will say: “You don’t know my name, do you, Erik?” (Except they’ll say your correct name, like they always say your correct name, because they clearly genuinely know your actual, correct name.) Emailing them that Memory and Cognition article later that evening only exacerbates the situation. Don’t do it.
So how do we fix this? I have an idea.
Most non-name words have synonyms. Like, if you forget the word “exacerbate,” you can say “aggravate,” or “annoy,” or “worsen.” Look at all those words you can choose from! But if you forget the word “Kelly,” what are you supposed to do? The way language currently works, you’re fucked.
But what if we came up with synonyms for proper nouns? Like, what if we decided Kelly means the same exact thing as Karen, Kate, and Kennifer? What if you could pick one of those names – any of them, really, as long as you’re in the same ballpark – and then move on with the conversation? Life would be so much easier!
Life is short, and it’s only getting shorter. Who has time to remember the difference between all the Mike and Marks in the world. From now on, every Mark is Mike and every Mike is Mark! They’re the same name now, you’re welcome.
So next time you see me, if you can’t remember the word “Erik,” feel free to call me Eddie, or Elvis, or Ethan. I promise we’ll both be grateful I don’t have to call you “hey, you” again.