What celebrities can teach us about memory

A while ago, a New Zealand judge called Robert Murfitt ruled that a girl who’d been named ‘Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii‘ should be placed in his court’s guardianship until ‘appropriately’ renamed. He felt that the name ‘makes a fool of the girl and sets her up with a clear social disability and handicap’. He went on to voice his concern about other names recently given to New Zealand children, such as ‘Violence’ and ‘Number 16 bus shelter’.

This is judge-mental. The child was blessed, not handicapped, with this wonderfully memorable name. Our magistrate should have realized that it is neither necessary nor desirable that we sport names that are, like his, mere collections of sounds.

Naming hasn’t always been so inspid. When socializing with Vikings in days gone by you’d encounter people called Bloodaxe or Forkbeard, and so get yourself both an entertaining, memorable image and a valuable piece of information. Even in Europe today, a swede hearing the name ‘Bjorn Borg’ will be gifted the image of a bear-castle, a tasty morcel for her memory.

In our disoriented culture, however, it is only celebrities who seem to name their children memorably: think of Peaches Geldoff and of Sage Moonblood Stallone. Of course, we hear so much of these people that we’d remember their names if they were in binary code; but we should nonetheless acknowledge their parents’ admirable mnemonic wisdom.

For we can then learn from it- and use our imaginations to bring normal names up to the bench-mark set by celeb-child-naming practices. To see why this is necessary, close your eyes and try to remember the name of the girl and the judge mentioned earlier. The chances are, you can remember the girl’s name and not the judge’s. But had the judge been called ‘the robber with feet made of myrrh’ you’d probably have recalled his name -Robert Murfitt- just as easily as Talula’s.

Bringing names to life, then, is best done by treating them as (garbled) sentences in English. By this method, Y-Combinator leader Paul Graham (pictured up top) might become someone PULLing on the tail of a GREY HAM (directly above). If you imagine ‘PG’ engaging in this activity, you won’t forget his run-of-the-mill name. The technique is just as good with exotic names: for instance, difficult-to-get-exactly-right Iranian surnames might become armoured-dinner-ja(cket)s. And so on.

It’s true that this is an effortful technique, and I can’t claim to apply it all the time myself. Nonetheless, one can get quite quickly into the habit of producing these images, and it makes for glorious imaginative exercize. Practice on 50 people you already know and you’ll soon develop a vocabulary of images, and learn how to concoct them at speed. Names will soon begin to come to life in your mind, and you’ll start taking pleasure in remembering them.