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In Memory of All Those Name Games

Several readers, touched by my confession of difficulty in remembering names and other things, have suggested various methods for correcting that embarrassing affliction.

Most of them admitted having the same problem; some told anecdotes illustrating it, some suggested remedies.

The most poignant letter came from Don Dolan of Van Nuys: “I swear to you. . . . This is not a joke!” he writes. “I seem to have forgotten what it was I was going to tell you. . . . I put the newspaper down, went to my writing loft . . . and after the first sentence, I could not recall the funny (I thought) anecdote I was going to tell you about. Oh, well . . . if I can remember where the loft is, perhaps all is not lost.”

Virginia E. Paulsen, 75, resident of a retirement home, recalls that Ralph Waldo Emerson had the same problem. Asked to say a few words at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s grave, he hesitated a moment, then said: “I can’t remember his name, but he was a dear, gentle man. . . .”

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Some warned of the perils of word association, as I had. Thomas M. Vize of Santa Ana recalls the woman who had trouble remembering the name of the actor Robert Cornthwaite. It was suggested that she associate the name with Corn Flakes. Sure enough, the next time she met Cornthwaite, she said, “How very nice to see you again, Mr. Kellogg.”

I stumbled on the association method on our recent South Seas cruise. My wife and I often sat at meals or for drinks with two men, El Burnette and Frank Sherwood. For some reason I had difficulty in remembering Sherwood. I decided to think of him as Robin Hood, of Sherwood Forest. The next time we met, I said to one of them, “You’re Robin Hood. Of Sherwood Forest.” The only trouble was that I was talking to El Burnette, not Frank Sherwood.

Wendell White recalls that his mother took a course in remembering names. She met a man named George Axelrod at a party, associated the name with “a part of a car,” and when later she introduced the man to her husband she called him “George Crankshaft.”

Ed Lowell of Tarzana says Dale Carnegie, whose book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” contained many suggestions for remembering names, had no skill at it himself. Interviewed at a testimonial for the man, his wife said, “Dale is a wonderful man to live with. But he has one little weakness. He can’t remember names. Whenever we go anywhere he is always pulling on my skirt and asking, ‘Who the dickens is that?’ ”

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I admit that my wife performs this service for me, and Hillary probably does it for Bill. Eugene B. Walsh of Pasadena remembers a poem he wrote called “What’s His Name?”

It ends:

“So I take my wife and have her to thank

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“For remembering names when my mind goes blank.

“Otherwise I’m stuck with an excuse that’s really lame,

“Trying to remember, you know, what’s his name.”

Stephen L. Glass, a professor of classics at Pitzer College, informs me that this kind of collaboration goes back at least to Roman times. Such a functionary was called a nomenclator (sometimes spelled nomenculator).

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“The standard duty of a nomenclator was to remember the names of people who might encounter his employer,” he writes. “We hear of nomenclators who served politicians when they were canvassing for votes in the streets, or simply meeting people as they went on their daily rounds. Others were used in households with large numbers of slaves to remind the master of the names of specific individuals among them. . . .

“The word nomenclator is still part of the English language, as I recall, but is seldom used in modern parlance as it was in Latin . . . pity.”

Geoff Clarkson of North Hollywood recalls a conversation between two old friends. One says, “You know, we’ve been friends for a long time, and I hate to ask you this, but what’s your name?”

The other man hesitates a moment, then says, “Do you have to know right away?”

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With the help of the Pasadena Library, Mickey Galef of Altadena has dug up a poem remembered from long ago. It is about a little girl who had difficulty remembering the product of six times nine, which is 54. Someone suggested that she call her favorite doll 54, instead of its true name, Mary Ann. Hating the name 54, she called her doll 54 over and over, until she thought she had it.

“Next day, Elizabeth Wigglesworth, who always seems so proud,

“Said ‘Six times nine is 52,’ and I nearly laughed aloud!

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“But I wished I hadn’t when teacher said, ‘Now Dorothy, tell if you can,’

“For I thought of my doll, and--oh dear me--I answered ‘Mary Ann!’ ”

Even if my own name is forgotten, I hope I’m remembered as a dear, gentle man.

Jack Smith’s column is published Mondays.

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