“Glad to meet you!” I shook hands with the couple behind me at church, mumbling over and over the names they had just told me—Josh and Laurie, Josh and Laurie. I tried to think of some way to cement their names into my brain, but I knew with certainty that they would be gone from my memory by the time next Sunday rolled around. No matter how hard I try, or which little tricks I employ, I’m simply horrid at remembering peoples’ names.
If only they were flowers—or birds!
I have no problem at all remembering the names of plants and animals. Of course, some simply name themselves. Consider these birds: Red-headed Woodpecker, Clay-colored Thrush (right), Cinnamon Teal. Or how about lilacs (top, left), violets, or pinks? No matter which came first, the color or the flower, they’re now forever paired in our minds.
Why can’t we name people the same way? I have one friend who could be a Golden Curly-top, and another who would be perfect as Ebony Grace. If only their parents had been so farsighted, I’m confident their names would stick in my head!
If this doesn’t appeal, there’s another approach we can take. Consider how scientists name species. One of my favorites has always been the Cobalt Blue Sponge. I learned it as Hymenamphiastra cyanocrypta, although I see the genus has been changed to Acanthancora. Either way, cyano- means blue, and crypta means hidden, which perfectly describes this animal. As for Acanthancora? After the initial usage, we’ll just abbreviate it as A.
Or how about the common xeric plant, rabbitbush (aka chamisa)? Again, the taxonomists have been at work, shuffling species around as their DNA changes our understanding of their relatedness. It’s now called Ericameria nauseosa, but we long knew it as Chrysothamnus nauseosus. Talk about appropriate! Chryso- means yellow, thamnus means shrub, and nauseosus should be self-explanatory. So it’s a nauseating yellow shrub. If you’ve ever seen rabbitbrush in bloom (left), you may agree with the botanist who named it!
We’ll need to be careful. Not all names are, shall we say, complimentary? I’ve always wondered if plants such as Pigsqueak or Toad Lily mind their names. Or how about all the “Least” birds—Least Grebe, Least Flycatcher, Least Bittern—do they wish they were “greater”? When it comes to people, I’m sure we should avoid names such as Mr. Hanging Jowler, or Ms. Immensa Schnozze—even though I bet I’d remember them!
Sadly, even naming things for how they look won’t solve the problem of my bad memory. In the same way that we have Scarlet Tanagers, Vermilion Flycatchers, Rosy-finches, and Red-naped Sapsuckers, which name should I remember for a person with red hair—Scarlet? Rusty? Ginger? Red?
Unfortunately, there’s one major problem with naming people like we do species, whether it’s a common name or a scientific one. Whether we’re talking about Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, or Blue Jays (left), their name applies to all members of a species, not just one individual. When I say I saw a Red-winged Blackbird, you don’t know which one I’m referring to. People already have a name like that—humans, or Homo sapiens.
So now I’m back to the original problem. How do I remember a name that is, in actuality, totally random? One David doesn’t look like another David, and they may have nothing in common. I have a number of friends named Linda, or Debbie, or John—and they’re all from different families, live in different places, are different ages, look very different, and enjoy different interests.
I guess there just aren’t any shortcuts. When it comes to meeting new people, I should fall back on the standard advice I’ve read time and time again: Concentrate. Repeat their name. Spell it. Write it down. Add a memory-jogging note or description.
Maybe flash cards will help.