Even memory experts can have trouble placing people when they pop up out of context and after some years have passed. I was recently on a cultural exchange tour in Cuba, and one member of our party looked strangely familiar. It turns out she is a former Miss America, but my association with her was from elsewhere.
Brent: This is going to sound corny, but I know you from somewhere, and I can’t place you.
Tawny: I used to be a news anchor in Los Angeles. I went by Tawny Little back then.
Brent: Of course! You were on KABC. I spent the first 30 years of my life in LA and remember being intrigued by your first name. Where does it come from?
Tawny: Well, my mother’s name is Constance, and she has a much younger sister, Carole, who is in fact 18 years younger. Carole is more like a cousin to me than an aunt. When my parents were courting, my mom was around 20, and Carole was 2. She couldn’t say “Connie”—she pronounced it “Tawny.” My mother thought it was cute and said that if she ever had a daughter, that’s what she’d name her. Here I am!
Brent: What a sweet story. Have you met other Tawnys in your life?
Tawny: Yes. It’s a pretty distinctive name, and I worked in TV for a couple of decades, so people knew of me. In fluky, random ways, I’d meet someone named Tawny while shopping, and they’d say that their mother loved my unusual name. In fact, at the airport in LA, a woman working in TSA told me that she had a friend who had named her daughter Tawny. Sometimes they’ll have a variant spelling with an “i” at the end.
Brent: How cool that some of these Tawnys have gotten to meet the celebrity they were named after. But I bet few if any of them know that you were named for your aunt’s adorable mispronunciation of “Connie.”
Tawny: Very true.
Brent: Your aunt may have been wise for her years. She took an abstract nickname and turned it into a real English word. I’m pretty sure the word “tawny” comes from the same root as “tan.”
Tawny: I have a funny story about that, since I’m fair skinned and also tall. I was introduced once to Sir Ian McKellen at the Polo Lounge in LA. He looked me up and down, and in that high British accent of his said, “Well, well, Tawny Little. You are neither!”
Brent: That clearly made an impression on you. Few people can say that Sir Ian has commented personally on their name. Thank you for sharing this anecdote with my readers.
Tawny: It’s been a pleasure.
In my book How Could I Forget You! A Creative Way to Remember Names and Faces, I stress that mishearing a name or unwittingly mispronouncing it can be a productive way to commit it to memory. Learn about this poetic phenomenon, called a mondegreen, by reading this excerpt from chapter 7: Find Beauty in Misunderstandings.