The Name-Letter Effect

Driving on a highway in 1977, Belgian experimental psychologist Jozef Nuttin noticed that he preferred license plates containing letters from his own name. In testing this idea, he found that it’s generally so: People prefer letters belonging to their own first and last names over other letters, and this seems to be true across letters and languages.

Nuttin found this so surprising that he withheld his results for seven years before going public. (A colleague at his own university called it “so strange that a down-to-earth researcher will spontaneously think of an artifact.”) But it’s since been replicated in dozens of studies in 15 countries and using four different alphabets. When subjects are asked to name a preference among letters, on average they consistently like the letters in their own name best.

(The reason seems to be related to self-esteem. People prefer things associated with the self — for example, they tend to favor the number reflecting the day of the month on which they were born. People who don’t like themselves tend not to exhibit the name-letter effect.)

(Jozef M. Nuttin Jr., “Narcissism Beyond Gestalt and Awareness: The Name Letter Effect,” European Journal of Social Psychology 15:3 [September 1985], 353-361. See Initial Velocity.)

In a Word

adj. odd; not matched

n. an anonymous person

n. one who speaks for another

adj. not knowable for certain

Ostensibly the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were recorded by his friend John Watson. But of the 60 canonical tales, two (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”) are told in the third person. Who wrote these? Sherlock’s brother Mycroft? One of Watson’s wives? Watson himself, strangely? Arthur Conan Doyle?

In The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William Stuart Baring-Gould writes only, “There has been much controversy as to the authorship of these two adventures.”

In a Word

n. a great number, a crowd

n. strong feeling against a person

v. to whisper

adj. murmuring, growing noisy

Gladys Cooper’s sister, Cissie, was equally misled by an audience when she went on stage for the first time, after acting as her sister’s dresser for many years. Although she only had a small part, the audience apparently started to hiss almost as soon as she had come on stage. This happened every night and in the end she came into the wings in tears. Gladys Cooper could not understand what was going wrong and she asked the House Manager to see if he could find out what was the matter. So he slipped into the back of the stalls just as her sister was making her entrance and from where he was standing he heard the audience whispering:

‘It’s Cissie Cooper, Gladys Cooper’s sister … It’s Cissie Cooper, Gladys Cooper’s sister …’

— Kenneth Williams, The Complete Acid Drops, 1999

Talking Points

In September 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower found himself campaigning against the eloquent Adlai Stevenson, Time magazine made a list of his incomprehensible utterances:

“In our efforts throughout the world, on outpost positions, I mean positions that are exposed to immediate Communist threat, physical threat, if we will help those people hold out and get ourselves back where we belong as reserves to move in to any threatened danger point if they carry it to that point, carry it to that level, then what we will be doing it will be taking these 22 million South Koreans, pushing programs for getting them ready to hold their own front line.”

“I had some service friends that came to me along about May and some things beat around my head, and asked me, ‘General, why are you so crazy to ever get into this kind of thing?’ I had to find some answer that was quick because I was pretty busy in Europe. I got a picture of my three grandchildren and I put it on my mantel and I said, ‘Look at that.’ I want to talk about the future for a second in their terms. This is my particular philosophy. We have been talking about social gains for all our people in terms of, first, political issues, and secondly as of goals in themselves. Now I reject both doctrines, both ideas.”

“We are not going to let our citizens, through no fault of their own, fall down into disaster they could not have foreseen and due to the exigencies of our particular form of economy, this modern economy where they have no power to keep themselves out of that.”

Arnold Roth observed, “The man who had commanded the greatest army in history seemed to have inadequate command of his own thoughts, or at least the vehicle by which he carted those thoughts into public view.”

See All Clouds, No Thunder.

In a Word

n. a bookseller

adj. slow; tardy; dilatory; causing delay

n. an inquisitive person

adv. from elsewhere; from another source

[Edmund Law] had a book printed at Carlisle; they were a long time about it: he sent several times to hasten them; at last he called himself to know the reason of the delay. ‘Why does not my book make its appearance?’ said he to the printer. ‘My Lord, I am extremely sorry; but we have been obliged to send to Glasgow for a pound of parentheses.’

— Henry Colburn, Personal and Literary Memorials, 1829

Time and Talk

Speakers of the Kuuk Thaayorre language, spoken by the Thaayorre people in Queensland’s Pormpuraaw settlement, use absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) rather than relative spatial terms (left, right), even at small scales. So, for example, they would say, “The cup is southeast of the plate” or “The boy standing to the south of Mary is my brother.”

In 2010, University of California psychologists Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby gave Kuuk Thaayorre speakers sets of cards depicting temporal progressions — a man aging, a crocodile growing, a banana being eaten — and asked them to arrange the shuffled cards on the ground to indicate the correct temporal order.

English speakers arrange the cards from left to right, Hebrew speakers from right to left. But the Kuuk Thaayorre arranged them from east to west, regardless of the direction the subjects themselves were facing.

Among other things, this means that the Kuuk Thaayorre must be constantly aware of their orientation in the world. “We never told anyone which direction they were facing,” Boroditsky wrote later. “The Kuuk Thaayorre knew that already and spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.”

(Lera Boroditsky, “How Language Shapes Thought,” Scientific American 304:2 [February 2011], 62-65.)