Remembering names, first names and last names

Some ideas for remembering names

Remembering names presents problems for many people, whether it’s first names and last names, or either one. Unlike most people, I suspect, I have trouble even remembering first names. That’s not a problem generally, I’m pretty sure. But usually I just can’t seem to trigger the retrieval process, no matter what memory improvement techniques I employ. I mean, as soon as I see someone I know the person’s name, or at least that’s how it feels, but I just can’t see it. I can’t get a smell of it, or a flavour of it. It’s just not there, and nothing I do makes it appear. Remembering names is probably the biggest memory problem I face.

A good example of this happened to me this morning. I was watching breakfast news and saw Eamonn Holmes introducing it. His name was onscreen below him at the start, as usual (I’ve probably been watching him on TV for the last ten or fifteen years, on and off), and less than two minutes later I was thinking “That’s Eamonn … Eamonn … er Eamonn someone … begins with H … is it Hughes?”, and after a fruitless few minutes more, trying to ‘find’ the name, I had to hit rewind to see what it actually was. Yeah, I know … seems ridiculous to me as well.

Hey, just realised, I shoulda pictured him in Sherlock’s deerstalker!

Use mental images to make a visual connection

image of a girl leading a lion

Carolyne just popped out to the shops!

Anyway, as I was saying, sometimes, I manage to get things moving, regardless of how elusive names are for me. Some things work, though not reliably. For example, what I try to do, and it works to an extent, is to make some sort of connection or visual image to the person that includes a whiff of the name.

For example, for Carolyne, I try to visualise her leading a lion by a chain (a link to the ‘lyne’ part of her name). If I manage to visualise her singing a Christmas song with the lion at her side, that’s even better.

Crazy mental images are useful for remembering names

Of course, some names are easy to link like this, like Doug (visualise him digging a hole with a spade – he’s ‘dug’ it!), or Cliff (see him standing atop a cliff, the edge crumbling dangerously at his feet), or Celia (see her with a trained seal), or Robbie (see him making off with a huge, stolen bee!). For others, just search around till you find something, like an image of someone with a big, gnarly toe growing out of his knee (for Tony, of course!), or imagine this other guy carrying a lamp (let’s just hope I can remember it’s a Davey lamp!). You could imagine Terry wearing a terry towelling bathrobe, and Peter standing on a huge rock, or cracking open a safe (Peter originally means stone, and a peterman is old underworld slang for a safecracker).

girl sitting on a branch (she's called Teresa!)For Andy, imagine him with one huge, distorted hand. Ugly image, maybe, but not easy to forget! Teresa, well obviously you could imagine her sitting under a tree, or on a branch. Just don’t assume her surname is Green! ForClaire, you could vsualise her tucking into a chocolate eclair, with oodles of cream oozing out of the pastry. You could ‘see’ Alex (whether it’s a him or her) with a gigantic, ice cold lager (“Ice Cold in Alex”, fine old WWII film, if you haven’t seen it, you should). And always keep in mind, you need to create really vivid mental images.

Be creative, and stretch a point when you have to. It doesn’t matter if you distort logic – in fact, it’ll probably help you remember the name even better, because you had to dig around and make something up out of virtually nothing. This is exactly the type of thing that will make a memory vivid, and lasting. Mental images that are vivid, interesting, unusual or bizarre are just what you need if you want to make lasting memories.

The McLink – yet another of the memory improvement tips you can use

Many surnames are based on other names. Anytime you see Mc or Mac at the beginning of a name, you’re looking at a name that grew out of another name. Some names that carry these prefixes are McDonald, McIntyre, McAdam, McVeigh, McBride, McCarthy, McKinley, McLaughlin, and McPherson. Often, these names occur variously with both the Mc and Mac prefix.

Other examples of names with patronymic prefixes (first parts that indicate a family name coming down the father’s line) are O’Neill, O’Connor, O’Reilly, O’Farrell, O’Shea, O’Connell, O’Keefe, O’Dwyer, O’Leary and O’Carroll. These aren’t exhaustive lists, obviously. There are dozens of such names, at least, and probably hundreds.

Names like this indicate ‘son of’, meaning that, sometime in the dim and distant past, a person was known as McAdam (for example), to show that he was the son of a man called Adam. Another way this shown was to add ‘son’ to the end of the person’s name, so you have plenty of such names as Adamson, Williamson, Robinson, Johnson, Anderson (Andrew’s son), Gustafson, Harrison (Harry’s son), Henrikson, Thomson, Ericsson, Emerson, Wilson, Peterson, Davison, Addison, Maddison, Jameson, Allinson, and many more.

Oh, and Dixon is another ‘son of’ name (Dick’s son), and so is Nixon (Nick’s son)

And the benefit of all this?

Well, just knowing that a person’s name indicates that he or she is someone’s descendent can give you an idea for an image, so remembering names in cases like this can become a lot easier. Perhaps you can visualise them being led by the hand by their mother or father, and focus on that person’s name. For example, see Julie Peterson being led by her dad, Peter. Say to yourself,Julie Peterson, she’s Peter’s son, and she’s called Julie“.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest that this is totally made up and meaningless in any real sense, it only matters that once you’ve created the image and repeated the names to yourself, it will be more likely to stay in your memory.

Introduce celebrities into the mix
(well, they have to be useful for something!)

You could also link an image of a celebrity to the person in question. So, for a Freddie you could imagine him and Freddie Mercury chatting or singing together, and for someone called Tommy you could imagine him being shown a trick by Tommy Cooper. For a woman called Ruby, imagine her listening to Ruby Wax (and telling her to keep the noise down!).

There are some obvious, and simpler links, of course. For Annie, you could imagine her getting her gun, and for Sylvia, imagine her being painted more and more silvery, so she’s actually becoming silvier! And Ruby, who we just mentioned … you could imagine her wearing a brooch with a huge ruby set in it, if you prefer, instead of using the Ruby Wax connection.

Carol, you could imagine singing a yuletide song. Isobel, well she could be holding a bell, showing it to you, and asking, in an Italian accent, “Is-a bell, si?”. Avery could be sitting on one side of a pair of huge scales. Brooklyn could be 500 ft. tall, and standing astride the Brooklyn Bridge. Gail could be pictured very windswept, and Abigail could be seen tighly clasping a huge, brightly coloured bee in a raging storm.

I know some of these memory improvement tips for remembering names might sound ridiculously contrived, but the fact is they’re necessary (for me, anyway). And you do what you have to do to try to remember names. You need to employ every memory technique in the book. And sometimes it even works!

Anyway, contrived is the name of the game when it comes to memory techniques – the whole idea is to create something vivid in your mind so that it will be appealing. It’s only when something appears unusual and appealing that your brain latches onto it hungrily and refuses to let go.

Paint a pub sign

pub sign (The Bull's Head)

Make your images as clear and as recognisable as a pub sign

In centuries gone by, public houses were given names specifically because they had strong, clear images attached to them, for the very good reason that most people couldn’t read. Consequently, it was necessary to paint a picture and hang it outside so everyone knew what the place was called. The pub sign took the place of first names and last names, and became a simple visual memory technique by providing an image that would stay in the memory.

That’s why there are plenty of old-style pubs with simple, unambiguous names, like The Red Lion, The Bear and Staff, The Green Man, The King’s Arms, The Black Bull, The Flying Horse, The Laughing Cavalier, The Royal Oak, The Green Man, The Ship Inn, etc.

These signboards identified the pub, and were easily recognised by anyone, whether or not they could read. Use the same reasoning to help you in remembering names; paint a picture (mentally), and make it bright and vivid, and additionally make it animated. The simple act of making your images move makes them much more memorable.

Trades and professions

Many names have their origins in the work that people did. Family names often advertised the bearer’s trade. A man who thatched roofs for a living would be known as the thatcher, since it would be quite likely he would be the only thatcher in his small community. If his given name was David, he’d likely be generally known as David the thatcher, which, over time, became simply David Thatcher. The same applied to sawyers, millers, fletchers, arrowsmiths, chandlers, coopers, farmers, smiths, drapers, tailors, hunters, dyers, fishers, archers, hoopers, gardeners, goldsmiths, and dozens, and very likely hundreds of others.

Many of the trades and professions have disappeared altogether, or their names are unfamiliar for various reasons, but if you’re interested to read about them it can give you more insight into the meanings of surnames generally. And, more importantly, it can help you form meaningful mental images for what formally might have seemed obscure names.

If you want to know more about names and their derivation, or if you’re curious about the meaning of your own name, take a look at Forebears, a very wide-ranging genealogy site that includes, among other things, the meaning and derivation of surnames.

Old and sometimes long gone occupations

Some names that are linked to old occupations are Baxter (baker), Bailey (bailiff), Brewster (brewer), Chandler (maker or seller of candles, or dealer in ship’s goods), Clark (cleric or writer), Collier (coal miner), Cooper (barrel maker), Faulkner (falconer), Fletcher (maker of bows and arrows), Fuller (cloth worker), Hooper (maker of metal hoops for barrels), Keeler (bargeman), Lederer (leather worker), Mason (stone worker), Plumber/Plummer (lead and pipe worker), Roper (maker of ropes or nets), Slater (roofer), Tanner (hide worker), Foster (forester), Turner (lathe worker), Webster (loom operator), and the list goes on and on.

Having an interest in names, their historic derivation, and their sometimes hidden meanings, can really help you develop a genuine ‘feel’ for them. The more you know about a name, the easier it is to link something to it and to create the kind of images that will stick in your mind. And the best of it is, this will sometimes happen automatically. Just knowing names more intimitely will make them more easily memorable, without any special effort.

If you want to look into the whole subject of names and their history, you might want to make a start at The Internet Surname Database, a family-run website that includes links to lots of other interesting sites in the same niche.

Use any and all memory improvement tips you can think of to assist you in remembering names. Pile one memory technique on top of another, till you get the result you want. If you make a habit of it, you’ll soon have a better grasp of first names and last names, and whatever names you need to commit to memory.

What’s the story behind your name?

Is your name unusual? Do people have trouble remembering it? Or is it so unusual that it’s almost unforgettable! And what’s the derivation of it? Was it originally a trade name? Did it come from a different language, or ethnicity? Did someone just make it up? If so, has it caused you embarrassment? Or pride?

We’re all fascinated by names (or should be, if we want to remember them!), so put us out of our misery and tell us where your name comes from! Just fill in the form below and your submission could become a new page on the site.


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