Annals of error: name retrieval in the news

The error, as reported in HuffPo (among many other news sources) on the 13th: by Jenna Amatulli,

New Zealand Newspaper [the Gisborne Herald] Flubs Stan Lee’s Obituary, Writes ‘Spike Lee Dies’


Inadvertent errors in retrieving words are common, especially in speech. Some are primarily motivated on phonological grounds, some primarily on semantic grounds, but typically both effects are relevant (some details in a moment). Inadvertent errors in retrieving proper names are particularly common, because everyone experiences a monumental number of proper names, with new ones popping up on a daily basis. In this context, Spike Lee for Stan Lee would be an entirely unsurprising error in name retrieval.

Nobody seems to have actually thought that the newspaper confused Stan Lee (the Marvel comic guy, white and 92) with Spike Lee (the movie-maker, black and 61), though a number of news outlets published stories in which photos of the two men were juxtaposed — this despite the fact that the Gisborne Herald‘s story came with a picture of Stan Lee (see #1), so that it was immediately clear that the error was about the name, not about the referent.

A bit more about the two men:

Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber; December 28, 1922 – November 12, 2018) was an American comic book writer, editor, and publisher. He was the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, and later its publisher and chairman, leading its expansion from a small division of a publishing house to a large multimedia corporation.  (Wikipedia link)

Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee (born March 20, 1957) is an American film director, producer, writer, and actor. His production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced over 35 films since 1983. … Lee’s films have examined race relations, colorism in the black community, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other political issues. (Wikipedia link)

The error. First thing: the names are very similar phonologically: LN Lee in both cases, FNs both monosyllables of the form CCVC, where the onset cluster is /s/ plus a voiceless stop.

Second thing: both referents are men in a particular sociocultural category, embracing celebrities in the entertainment business (broadly understood).

That is, both the phonological and the semantic effect are at work here. It’s possible that a headline writer aiming to write about Stan Lee would dredge up the name Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster (the writer and artist, respectively, for the original Superman comics), but Spike Lee is much more likely, given the phonology of the target name. It’s also possible that such a headline writer would dredge up the name Scott Rhee, on purely phonological grounds (with no associations to anyone of that name), but Spike Lee is hugely more likely, given its referent’s role in our culture and his prominence there. Spike Lee is good phonologically, and Spike Lee is highly salient culturally.

Within the broad category of celebrities in the entertainment business, you could dredge up the name Spike Lee by a number of phonological routes. Think only about sharing LN or sharing FN. LN would get you Spike Lee when you were aiming for Stan Lee, and FN would get you Spike Lee when you were aiming for Spike Jones. A tiny sampling of the associations you might tap in a name search:


The phonological side of name retrieval errors is reasonably straightforward (though some research would be welcome on which phonological characteristics — accent pattern, onset consonants, quality of accented vowel, etc. — are especially prominent in them).

But the role of sociocultural categories in name retrieval errors is vastly more complex. The relevant categories tend to be ad hoc and exquisitely specific to very small groups; often they are matters of individual experience and knowledge. Parents calling out to a child might run through the full set of their children’s names before hitting on the one they intend. In referring to one member of a couple, people will retrieve instead the name of the other. But often, trying to retrieve someone’s name — a pop singer, for instance — will pull up only names for people of the same sex. And so on.

Gisborne. There’s an unpleasant tone of mockery in the HuffPo article, even more so in some other coverage (the gaffe was widely reported) and in the comments on the HuffPo piece: a tone of “dumb Kiwi hicks” or something like that. Most Americans know New Zealand as a very small insignificant country, somehow attached to Australia, therefore on the other side of the world and way down under. In the boondocks of the English-speaking world. And that’s pretty much it. If they’ve heard of any cities in New Zealand, they’d be Auckland or Wellington, maybe Christchurch on the outside, but certainly not Gisborne.

On the city, from Wikipedia:

(#4) New Zealand (ca. 1800 miles from Australia, by the way), with Gisborne located within it

Gisborne … is a city in northeastern New Zealand [ca. 216 mi by air from Auckland, 250 from Wellington] and the largest settlement in the Gisborne District (or Gisborne Region). It has a population of 37,200 (June 2018) [about half the population of Palo Alto CA].

… Gisborne is home to a large Māori population, with 48.9% of the population identifying as Māori, compared to the national average of 14.9%.

(#5) Gisborne City

Touristic note from the 100% New Zealand site:

If you have a strong interest in Māori culture – and you love food, wine and surf beaches – Gisborne is a city you won’t want to miss.

And, yes, they have a newspaper, one of only 4 independents among the 23 dailies in the country (and the only daily in tabloid format). The Gisborne Herald‘s digital edition offers a wide range of locally oriented news in an attractive format. (National and international news is available on-line from many sources, of course.)

One Response to “Annals of error: name retrieval in the news”

  1. [BLOG] Some Saturday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky, noting a recent news report mistakenly claiming the death of Spike Lee, examines the mechanics of misremembering […]

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