Coffeenyms and reservation names

From Andras Kornai, a link on my Facebook timeline, tagged as “for Mr. Alexander Adams”: a Schwa Fire piece, “The Name on the Cup: Brewing the Perfect Coffeenym” by Greg Uyeno. About choosing a name for ordering in a coffee shop with lots of background noise. A related task is choosing a name for making reservations over the phone (I have a small amount of local fame in some circles for using Alexander Adams as a reservation name.)

Then there’s Uyeno’s playful coinage coffeenym.

Michael Quinion’s affixes site has a brief entry on -onym (‘a name’, from Greek onuma) as a morphoplogical element, a combining form or derivational suffix, that “principally appears in words that describe kinds of words”: acronym, antonym, eponym, homonym, pseudonym, toponym, … These are learnèd formations, but in coffenym, Uyeno has playfully extended the element for use with a decidedly non-Classical first element, and in the variant -nym, for use with first elements that end in vowels.

Uyeno’s set-up:

I speak in the low grunts of a bachelor, so sometimes I have a hard time being understood in public places with a lot of background noise. It’s especially problematic in the coffee shops of New York City, where conversation and clinking saucers make a dull roar. In American coffee shops, cashiers often ask for a name to go along with each order, especially at peak hours. Doing so mostly serves to differentiate among the six small lattes that were ordered in the previous ten minutes, as names are called out once each drink is prepared. Thanks to the difficult environment, no doubt, it’s not uncommon for names to be misheard, misspelled, and mispronounced, a phenomenon ubiquitous enough to be lampooned in popular culture by the likes of How I Met Your Mother and Saturday Night Live. Democratized collections of the most unusual of these misunderstandings come in the form of Tumblr blogs such as Starbucks Spelling.

I typically manage to place my order smoothly enough, but cashiers always ask me to repeat my name. After I half-shout “Greg!”, enunciating as well as I can, they respond with a bored shrug and scrawl their best guess onto the cup. I’ve retrieved many drinks from the counter with “Craig” or “Rick” or “Grey” written on them, but they are all preferable to some of the peculiar non-names that I’ve been given, like “Rank.”

Tired of this repeated miscommunication, I decided to design a “coffee-cup name” specifically for use with baristas and cashiers. I don’t want just any name. I need the perfect pseudonym. Inspired by a collegiate dalliance with linguistics [Uyeno studied Cognitive Science at Berkeley], I have a gut feeling that some names are easier to hear because they’re made up of sounds that are easier to hear. The ideal sobriquet à café will combine those sounds to successfully pass through each stage of the coffee-shop game of Telephone: from me to the barista one time without repetition, then written flawlessly onto the cup, announced perfectly when the drink is ready, and finally heard by me through the din.

Drawing from a limited inventory of easy-to-hear sounds should narrow the field of possible pseudonyms, but only one of them can be the easiest to understand in a coffee shop. I intend to find that name and make it mine.

José R. Benkí is a research investigator in the Survey Methodology program at the University of Michigan. He knows a thing or two about interpreting messages in noisy environments, otherwise known as speech intelligibility. His research has looked at the confusability of English phonemes, which is assessed when subjects listen to stand-alone nonsense syllables (e.g., /bep/ or /tid/) in different levels of noise and transcribe the sounds they can hear.

Uyeno’s consultation with Benki explores a wide range of perceptual phenomena, but in the end Benki is unwilling to propose a specific coffeenym for Uyeno to use. So Uyeno consults with a variety of other folks, and eventually tries out Elvis at a Starbucks near NYU, which works pretty well because of its high recognition value, and it’s not phonologically close to any other name.

Alexander Adams similarly works well as a reservation name because it has a lot of redundancy in it, so that it’s not phonologically close to anything else. (Arnold is hopeless — confusable with many more common names, like Ronald, Donald, Harold, Albert, Herbert, and so on — and Zwicky is strange and unfamiliar, and phonologically marginal as a name in English in any case, so that using my real name for reservations is a lost cause.)

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