How an Australian film-maker evokes tennis

Or: the marvels of associative memory.

Previously on this blog, in my 9/12 posting “Two tennis-playing Zwickys”:

My old friend Ellen Sulkis James, musing on my name, e-mailed today:

I just read about someone else whose last name is Zwicky —  think it was someone involved with tennis.

Memories are often fugitive and hazy. Perhaps that’s what’s going on here. My searches for people named Zwicky with a tennis connection pulled up only two, both of them most unlikely to have come to ESJ’s attention

Ah, it turns out that the Zwicky in question is not tennis-related but — whoa! — film-related. This isn’t as bizarre an error as would first appear; we can in fact chalk it down to the nature of memory (in which personal associations between things play a big role).

I will explain.

ESJ writes with her discovery:

I just found the misplaced Zwicky!
It is Karl Zwicky. Karl Zwicky, Australian Broadcasting Company, working on a tv series called Janet King.

At first, this didn’t help me at all. KZ I knew about; there have been two postings about him on this blog:

on 8/19/16 in “A filmic Zwicky from Perth”, an introduction to Australian film-maker KZ

on 4/25/17 on “Zwicky takes us to Ballarat 60 years ago”, about tv shows directed by KZ

I was dimly aware that he was involved with the excellent tv legal drama Janet King. From Wikipedia:

Janet King is an Australian television drama program which began airing on ABC1 from 27 February 2014. It was created as a spin-off from the 2011 legal drama Crownies.

The series is produced by KZ, Jane Allen and Lisa Scott.

Apparently the series was in the news a few days ago, with KZ’s name in the story, and ESJ read about it. But how does that turn into a memory about tennis?

This will be immediately obvious to many of you — probably to most readers, for whom Janet King evokes another woman with the surname King, Billie Jean King, who you know to be a famous tennis player. Janet to Billie Jean to tennis, and there you are: a Zwicky associated with tennis. (I have no idea whether KZ plays tennis, or has any interest in the game, but that would be utterly irrelevant to the way associative thinking works.)

Associative thinking. Three things: one, we can’t help thinking associatively (the associations come unbidden and out of awareness, they come automatically and below the level of conscious control); two, associations come in several different flavors (some are phonological, some are semantic, all are to some degree experiential); three, experiential associations are personal, often quite idiosyncratic (it all depends on what you know about through your own personal history and what you think is important enough to pay attention to).

Out of awareness. ESJ had no conscious awareness of Billie Jean King (a phonological and semantic association to Janet King) in her reading about KZ’s career in tv production, or of BJK’s association with tennis, but all of that led her from Zwicky to tennis.

Flavors of association. Pure phonology is enough. Ingenious research on what’s called priming in the psycholinguistic literature about the understanding of language indicates that when you hear (or read) some word W, like straw ‘drinking tube’ in Use a straw to drink your milk, you unconsciously entertain homophones (or homographs) of W, like straw ‘dried stalks of grain’. You’re not aware that this is happening and you can’t somehow turn it off; it’s part of the mechanisms of language understanding.

You’re also inclined to associate words with others from the same semantic category; king ‘male ruler’ is likely to evoke queen ‘female rule’.

Experiential association. Massively, you’re inclined to associate one thing with another that’s connected to it in your experience. There are people who have never heard about Billie Jean King née Moffitt; and there are people who just didn’t attend to information about her; and there are certainly people who know about her but associate to her primarily as an advocate of gender equality or gay rights, rather than as a tennis player — people like me.

I’m dimly aware that BJK’s a famous tennis player, but I’m a certifiable idiot about sports of all kinds, even tennis, where at the moment my main associations are to Roger Federer (because he’s Swiss), Novak Djokovic (because he’s an asshole), and Coco Gauff (because she’s suddenly famous); while I’m very much aware of Billie Jean King’s standing as a gay icon.

[Digression on BJK. From Wikipedia:

Billie Jean King (née Moffitt; born November 22, 1943) also known as BJK, is an American former world No. 1 tennis player.

… King is an advocate of gender equality and has long been a pioneer for equality and social justice.

She was also the first female athlete to come out as gay. After her (amicable) divorce from Larry King, she married her doubles partner Ilana Kloss in 2018.]

Yes, my view of things is certainly unusual. But it’s a reflection of my own experiences and the foci of my attention. I have lived through some things and not others. I have learned some things, and not others (I have never known the names and locations of the teams in American major league baseball and football, nor how they are grouped into leagues / divisions). Some things engage me, some do not. All this affects what associations I make.

Consider associations to the name King.

Wikipedia supplies a list of people with King as their given name or nickname; I immediately thought of film director King Vidor, jazz musician King Oliver, and the fictional King Kong.

But Janet King has King as a surname. Well, Wikipedia also supplies a list of people with the surname King; I immediately thought of the linguist Robert King (who’s not on Wikipedia’s long subsidiary list of people named Robert / Rob / Robbie / Bob / Bobby King), civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (and Coretta Scott King), American horror author Stephen King, American broadcaster Larry King, blues guitarists Albert King and B.B. King, singer / songwriter Carol King, orchestra leader Wayne King, U.S. senator Angus King, boxing promoter Don King, and, yes, tennis great (and gay icon) Billie Jean King.

My first associates to the surname King are male: MLK way out in front, then linguist Bob King, and a jumble of the rest. But Janet King is female, and there I get Carol King way out in front, then Coretta Scott King, and then Billie Jean King, but as a gay icon. So in failing to recall correctly what the newspaper story about Karl Zwicky was about, the King of Janet King would probably take me to friends (“You’ve Got a Friend”) or civil rights or dykes (maybe on bikes), rather than tennis. (Or the Janet of Janet King would take me to CUNY — where the late Janet Fodor taught — or Transylvania, via the Janet of The Rocky Horror Show.)

ESJ’s associations to the King of Janet King were different; the tennis-playing Billie Jean King prevailed. And your associations might be different from either of these.

I’m talking about these associations explicitly, reflecting on them analytically. But remember that in real life these associations are tacit, implicit, made without conscious reflection. All ESJ was left with was the impression that someone named Zwicky had gotten into the news through a connection to tennis.

That it was the film-world Karl Zwicky and that the news story involved his series Janet King are facts ESJ had to retrieve in a search, and then she had to hypothesize a name-based link from Janet King to Billie Jean King in order to employ the association between BJK and tennis — to get, after the event, an account of why Zwicky might have led to tennis, of how an Australian film-maker could evoke tennis.


2 Responses to “How an Australian film-maker evokes tennis”

  1. Ellen James Says:

    Fascinating and somehow scary because one is, in one’s mind, sure of some direct association, not something much more complex…. a “Who knew” moment for me. Send me bibliography on the subject please.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, discovering unsuspected parts of your mental life is always unsettling; I expected you to have that “Who knew” moment.

      But bibliography. A sore point for me, since (in a previous life) I used to assemble bibliographies on linguistic subjects. But back then I had a world-class personal academic library and access to Stanford libraries, and now I have neither, so I have to fall back on my (very fallible) memory and what I can find on-line, and I’m pretty much incapable of providing bibliographic references for things.

      In any case, there are the effects of prior associations (phonological, semantic, experiential) on priming, which you can start to investigate through the (alas, minimal) Wikipedia page on Priming (psychology). The substitutions in speech errors also show the effects of prior associations (of all types). There’s more, but this is the best I can do at the moment with the resources I have; I’m so sorry.

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