Name Synesthesia: Sorry, Rhona, and no offence, Gary

I can’t help but picture an image or scenario whenever I hear a name– any name. Now, you may be thinking, “Well hang on a minute there, Pete. What about a totally new name? One you’ve never heard before?”

In these cases, individual syllables and onomatopoeia immediately take over and an image is formed, instantaneously. This is entirely involuntary. I have no conscious influence or control over it. It just happens and has always just happened.

Some of these name-inspired images are easily rationalised, analysed, and justified— obvious. Others are a complete mystery to me and remain that way. I’ll show you what I mean. Listed below are some descriptions of the images I associate with certain names, in no particular order:

Charlotte evokes an image of one of those sherbet fountain things, popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s tipped on its side and ripped open at the top, the black liquorice poking out and the sherbet spilled out onto the surface it rests on. Perhaps it is merely because Charlotte sounds a bit like ‘sherbet’. Perhaps the spill of sherbet is a reference to the ‘lotte’ (‘lot’) syllable in Charlotte.

Ian is a key; long and slender, with a complex and precise tooth pattern. I don’t know why.

Steven (or Stephen) is a rotund man with braces (the holding-up-trouser kind [suspenders for Americans], not the orthodontic kind) and a cold, blowing his nose into a handkerchief. I don’t know where the braces or rotundness come from, but I think the cold and nose-blowing elements probably stem from the words ‘sneezing’ and ‘fever’. Steven is perhaps a rough combination of both words, although this would have been thoroughly subconscious when I met my first Steven. (It/he wasn’t a “Stephen.”)

Rachel is a selection of cellophane-wrapped sweets, with some scissors, wrapping paper, and tinsel in the background. I think my associations lie in the onomatopoeia of the name Rachel. It sounds like scrunching and cutting of crisp paper and the “untwizzling” of the wrapper of a Quality Street.

Jessica is a kitten or a rabbit, vomiting. Again, I’m guessing this subconsciously came about in my mind from Jess the Cat (hailing from the ’80s British children’s television show, Postman Pat); or from the sultry, confusingly-human-esque (yet definitely two-dimensional, cartoon and leporine) Jessica Rabbit herself. The vomiting is undoubtedly with reference to the second syllable, ‘sic’ (sick).

Alex is a stapler, folded back, ready for new staples to be installed.

Gary is a ball of green slime with orange streaks. (No offence, Gary.)

Gareth is an orthodontic retainer brace.

Jane is a silk bow. The bow can be either red, or blue.

Emma is a young lady pursing her lips and holding a piece of paper up to her chin.

Bob is a small, primary-coloured beach-ball floating on water, gently oscillating on little waves.

Kevin is a bottle of Sarson’s Malt Vinegar.

Kev is a car key. (Capable of opening/locking from range, but still with the metallic physical key aspect. Kev is not a mere fob.)

Patrick is the detached sole of a clumpy trainer.

Megan is a cartoon pig, piping icing onto a cake.

Dorothy is a crochet bed-runner or blanket.

Charlie is a steaming hot mug of cocoa, next to a fireplace with a gold-coloured fire-guard.

Mark is a dog who has lost his voice.

Donna is the rallying of a ping-pong ball. The ball has a small break in it, impeding its natural bounce and trajectory.

Christine is silver thread being sewn into light pink felt.

Jason is well-lubricated machinery – not cogs, but a specific metal piece that moves directly down a plane, similar to the sliding handle that is used to swipe across a modern office guillotine.

Sam is a patch on a scarecrow’s trousers.

Bill is the nostrils of a swan.

Robert is a smart buckled shoe, pressing down on the pedal of a vintage bike.

Martin is a baking tray being lined with grease-proof paper.

Colin is a somersaulting ladybird.

Jeff is a baggy pocket on an old, cheap suit jacket.

Fred is the woollen stitch on the button of a tweed jacket.

Sarah is a scuffed school sandal with a bent and distressed strap. The sandal is matte-leather, not patent, and has a misshaped T-bar.

Matthew is a simple, rectangular paint pallet (6-8 hollowed out cups for paint), filled with various basic colours of paint and housed in the “wet area”of a primary school, by the sink.

Margaret is the crumpling of a plastic-coated apron.

Amy is a talking, translucent pinkish bubble with a gentle lisp.

Stephanie is an irregular pair of shoes; one with laces, the other with Velcro, and both with brown shoe-horns.

Dave is a cartoon “WOW!” splat.

David is a car being put on a car-transporter or the celluloid tape of a VHS being pulled from its spools. (Gen-Zs, ask your parents about this one.)

Tracey is translucent grey paper. (I mean, that one’s obvious.)

John is a sturdy school shoe, treading in a little puddle on the pavement.

Sue is an English lady speaking Chinese.

Dale is tumbleweed in motion, but the tumbleweed is made out of shredded wheat.

Joseph is a dog with the markings of a Friesian cow.

Philip is fingers fidgeting with a leather key-fob.

Shane is a skinhead on a non-balding man.

Barry is an oversized can of Irn-Bru with white cartoon arms. He obstructs my path, although his arms are too short to move in front of his barrelled body.

Nicholas is a man going commando, but waving a pair of pink frilly pants in his hand.

Nick is a cartoon robber, sneaking something flat from underneath a cushion.

Cynthia is a spider’s web, glistening and fragile.

Roberta is a red-cheeked graduate with a mortarboard, riding a red vintage bike with a wicker basket.

Sharon is a flat, oblong, pale yellow, fizzy, and sticky sweet— like a long, hard, chewy Refreshers bar, but with the aroma of a bath soap.

Ron is the wrinkled, flattened snout of a boar.

Ronald is a man digging up Rolos with a spade, but they’re dirty and can’t be eaten and onlookers are reminding him of this.

Jake is a long spring, covered in fleecy, velvety fabric.

Charles is the rolling of eyes from left (upward) to right, through a pair of round, bone-rimmed spectacles.

Gordon is a huffing, indignant, scowling face, in the moments after being scorned.

Alice is a vibrant glacé cherry.

Alison is a pair of dungarees and a pair of practical sandals.

Carl (or Karl) is a Vauxhall Nova, with a plastic moustache above the front registration plate. It is red and has twin exhausts.

Jan is a hastily-constructed patchwork— irregular, basic, musty, but homely.

Stewart (or Stuart) is a sizzling pig’s tail. I don’t know how or why it’s sizzling, but it’s giving off a similar effect to that of a sparkler.

Daniel is a simple flip-jump from a small, square trampoline, set up at an angle.

Rhona is a pungent brown dog-treat.

Simon is the spreading of cement or mortar on bricks, using a silver trowel.

Derek is a clumsy grasshopper who lollops and leaves patches of slime where he lands.

Jordan is a water bottle with a nozzle, on the edge of a bench, next to the fire exit of a sports hall.

Pat is the decanting/dumping of beige matter of an aqueous consistency, into a large, shallow tray.

Trish is a handful of small golden coins, passing though fingers and into a red velvet bag.

Andrea is a bowl of fruit, left out in the sun.

Jayden is a diagonal line made by a highlighter pen, using a ruler.

Frank is the wax seal on an old envelope and green American dollars in a thick pile, with a brown leather armchair; smoke-spirals and plumes in the background.

Jade is a bright tropical fish who swims slowly and is not interested in being part of a shoal.

Leslie is a woman in dungarees, with a short, knife-and-fork-haircut, smoking a cigarette while sitting on a doorstep; a drooping washing line spanning across the garden.

Joe is a friendly entertainer in a top hat, who lets anyone play with his box of tricks.

Sally is a blonde haircut, just longer than a bob and with a thick fringe. The hair is poker-straight. Its owner is faceless, apart from smiling eyes. She bobs her head from left to right. (It’s hard not to think of a Sally without also thinking of a beach ball, because of the ‘Bob’ association.)

Wilma is (unsurprisingly) a crazed cave-woman, with a big, long, highlighted perm in a mess of knots and split ends. She has the back-plates of a purple cartoon stegosaurus. She also has a tail which lollops from side to side, but it is limp and non-threatening, like a heavily-sedated alligator. She holds a marshmallow Flump in her little dinosaur-hand.

Marcus is a black-haired graduate who wears round spectacles and owns a Volkswagen Golf Mk2.

Donald is a poached egg, being lifted from a bubbling pan by one of those shallow metal spoons with vertical slits in the belly of the spoon.

Valerie is the pneumatic suspension system on a Citroen DX.

Gemma is bright pink candy that was briefly sucked, then spat out.

Gregory is legs in jeans and welly-boots, clambering over a stile separating two fields.

Greg is a hurried and unrefined attempt at origami. Greg is also sometimes the textured beige gum-sole of a dull green welly-boot.

Arthur is antique wooden furniture– lightly varnished, but not shiny. Solid and carved with precision and attention to detail.

Chris is the scattering of the contents of a wallet; the dull ‘thhhh’ of plastic cards dropping and skidding on a laminate table and the ‘sccchhhh’ of coins as they are slid flat across the table-top. The table has a smooth, laminate top-surface; nearly reflective and light blue in colour; with a streaky grey ‘fleck’ effect. The table-top has a metallic lip and bevelled corners, where the coins rest and cluster, like two-dimensional pool-balls.

Brian is a hammer, hammering a substance too soft to require hammering.

Anne is a dry piece of dough being rolled out by a rolling-pin. The dough has cracks all around the edges and two speed-bump-like ripples in the dough, made by the rolling pin.

Anna is fresh, moist dough, with chocolate chips; just on the solid side of aqueous.

Hannah is a banana split, drizzled with zig-zag drizzles of chocolate sauce. Hannah is also a ruler that measures to its middle from both sides and is smattered with brown freckles. (It occurs to me that the ruler measuring from both sides is probably linked to the palindromic quality of the name Hannah.)

Joanna is long-legged gymnastic moves in baggy sweatpants/jogging bottoms.

Darren is a cool, brown and red cagoule, with an index finger pointing out of its sleeve. The finger has a deep nailbed with a sizable white crescent-moon cuticle, against the saturated fleshy pink of the rest of the nail. There are some white streaks along the grain of the nail and dark, spindly knuckle-hair over the finger-hinges. The finger is adorned by a squared-off gold ring. The ring has a flat top, with a small, deep red jewel set in one corner of the flattened ring-top.

Craig is the taut spring at the edge of a trampoline.

Keith is the blowing of bubbles through the ovaly-oblong hole of a bubble-blowing wand. The hole is always vertical, as opposed to horizontal, meaning the hand holding the wand is always below the face, as opposed to at one side. The oily, slippery residue of the bubble mixture dribbles and clings to the digits of the wand-wielder.

Nathan is a boy vomiting up a fully-intact pancake.

Jonathan is Nathan’s older brother, signing in at the primary school office to pick Nathan up. Jonathan has a floppy blonde bowl-cut and also identifies as a cartoon centipede, with oversized, globular red boots at the end of each of his numerous bright green, spindly legs. The legs all march in military uniform, programmed and effortless-– an action requiring no conscious coordination from Jonathan.

Sheila is one of those car chair back supports, made from a couple of hundred wooden beads, with a flattened-off surface; popular in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. An aesthetic nightmare, although surprisingly comfortable.

Paul is a globe in an overcoat.

Max is a brown sock-puppet with black freckles and three whiskers on each side, made from pipe-cleaners.

Felicity is the unfolding of cut paper in the formation of a snowflake-– all regular, purposeful cuts, with a four-fold-symmetrical ‘reveal’ in mind.

Trevor is a tractor, puffing fumes from the chimney/exhaust mounted on its side, while moving slowly forward. Diagonal, overlapped-arrow tyre-tracks are left in the mud Trevor has traversed.

Alan is the yellowed Sellotape around handwritten paper signs, stuck up yesteryear; the chunky grey Sellotape dispenser, weighty, and to the bottom-right of the frame.

Edward is a metallic, hospital-esque trolley, but its direction is governed by rails it glides on.

Laura is a ball of pink wool; a tangled, tight cluster, with an end poking out that has a laminate tip, like that of a shoelace.

Josh is a street-dancer with bleach-blonde boy-band hair and black eye-brows, dancing in wide-gaited symmetry, on top of a huge fold-in-half ruler.

Louise is the runny mucus of a pig with a cold. It runs clear as opposed to green.

Amanda is a ballet shoe in motion, on a sprung dancefloor.

Bianca is seashell art, symmetrical and smattered with sand, like icing sugar on a cake.

Tara is molten-hot treacle being stirred and turned over by a metal implement.

Rebecca is a girl overexerting herself at a party and being sick to the beat of drums, but carrying on dancing and playing immediately– unfazed.

Zoe is the neat stitching on a bright, contrasting pocket on the upper-right side of a shirt.

Jacob is a stale baguette that bends when you try to tear a piece off.

Jack is the open contents of an egg and cress-filled sandwich. Jack is also sometimes half of a red jacket.

Lawrence is a man in his fifties who wears a judge’s wig and gown while playing a cherry-red electric guitar.

Debbie is a small array of craft materials– mainly round wooden beads and plastic Hama beads, but also some square origami/gummed-paper in the background (multiple colours in an overlapping pile). Some of the beads are in the process of being strung, making a bead-snake of uniform spheres which clack on the table each time another bead is added.

Deborah is a loaf of bread rising in fast-motion, over the edges of a deep oblong tray/tin.

Debra(h) is the clasp/clip of a women’s undergarment. (It doesn’t take a genius to work out why.)

Ricky is an amateur magician; enthusiastic but unpolished and unrefined. Entertaining, but not yet ‘an entertainer’.

James is an embarrassed, red-faced watercolour, round, blobby, and flushed.

Jim is the sleek interior of an Audi.

Rosie is a female scarecrow with a hot flush.

Damien is the slight bend in playing cards as they are being shuffled and manipulated by a skilled dealer or magician.

Richard is oily fish of a high standard, served with a paste squeezed from a metallic tube.

Naomi is a round, protruding chin with a fuzzy brown mole on it.

Bethany is a shack or rickety barn, filled with straw; with a dog-bowl of water in the corner.

Paula is a purple, fuzzy ball, bouncing unpredictably— like ‘Pong’ gone wrong. Paula can also be a troll pencil topper from the early ’90s, with purple hair and a plastic jewel in her belly-button.

Reg is a wheelbarrow with a hole worn through it.

Susy/Suzy is a yo-yo that makes the sound of a zip unzipping and zipping up again, as it descends and ascends.

Maya is the emphatic victory celebration of a girl winning a dance-mat game.

Elizabeth is stick-on bows and draped ribbon with V-cut ends.

Candida is the final two chords at the end of a phrase of music, like ‘ta-dah!’ (A quaver, followed by a semibreve, I think!) It’s played on a black Casio keyboard with built-in speakers. The keyboardist is not visible, but there is a lopsided stack of 3 brown chairs where they would have been sitting/perched to play.

Ben is a Converse-style high-top trainer (sneaker), treading on a plank of light wood. The trainer is usually red, but sometimes black.

Benjamin is a one-man-band, bouncing on springs attached to black boots. He wears brightly-coloured baggy trousers, made of a thin, floaty material.

Candice is a glazed bun with white icing, a red glace cherry and a cartoon-like shine/glisten on the icing.

Katherine is many colours of wool being knitted by invisible hands. An unpeeled orange and a bowl of dark chocolate broken into pieces reside on the table where the ghost knitting is taking place.

Will is a navy rugby shirt with ‘11’ on the back of it and an upturned rugby boot; muddy studs up.

Jeffery is the filling and packing of a smoker’s pipe.

Mandy is a crayon that writes in edible, flavoured wax.

Connor is the dropping of a bowl of chestnuts.

Brandon is a sniper poised atop a giant Shreddie.

Danielle is the jerk that is experienced when you try to stop bouncing suddenly on a trampoline.

Erin is an elegant bird with an oversized, long, slender beak, dipping the tip of its peak into a pond, creating circular ripples in the water.

Oscar is the eyebrow of a man in his eighties— grey, unkempt, and overgrown, with the bushy bits sticking up.

Phoebe is a packet of wet-wipes on a supermarket shelf that have a ‘reduced’ sticker on them. The seal is broken and a dried-out wet-wipe protrudes from the packaging. (Because of the markdown in price, Phoebe is nearly a ‘freebie’, but not quite.)

Fraser is a wet paper towel being wiped across a dirty, smooth surface.

Dean is a chocolate-shelled, disc-shaped sweet; with an aniseed centre.

Jody is a round lollipop snuck into an exam hall.

Athena is a big, new book being opened – it’s one of those glossy, hardback books, like an encyclopaedia. As it opens, a ballerina pops up, formed from the pages of the book.

Henry is a scribbled patch of orange-red, made by a coloured-pencil that was pressed down hard onto the paper. There are some little pieces of crumbled lead/wax where the tip got crushed. Silver-grey pencil-sketched hair in a side-parting (left-side, from my POV) adorns the top of the orange-red scribbled patch.

Jaqueline is margarine being spread on white bread.

Jacklyn is the sound of a door that locks as you pull the handle up.

Loretta is a small, weighted, silver ball that is being pushed using a wooden stick, in an old-fashioned pinball-like table-top game called Bagatelle.

Maz is the unveiling of a bold, brightly-coloured piece of abstract art, to whoops and rounds of applause.

Marianne is two wedding rings made out of uncooked dough. These are being exchanged to the sound of little bells on strings clinking together.
Sadie is Christmas decorations being taken out of a cardboard box and fake snow being sprayed onto a window, over a stencil.

Kate is tape being used to stick a delivery label on a parcel.

Jenny is pigtails tied with blue and green tartan ribbon.

Gillian is the clink and jangle of a large bunch of keys, housed on a comically oversized metal key-ring/hoop.

Gill is cool, slightly flavoured water or very diluted squash being poured from a jug with no handle, almost like a vase.

Judy is a comical robber, robbing for entertainment and pettiness, in cartoon fashion. Swag-bag, striped top and black, wraparound mask with eyeholes; running to the sound of canned laughter, before putting on oversized red spectacles to examine all the swag she has collected.

Daryl is the hard heel and lack of absorption of a Cica trainer.

Michael is a crinkle-cut crisp or microwaveable chip. The crisp is in a split, foil packet and the chip is protruding from the perforated opening on the top of a snack-size box.

Gregor is a seesaw with a crummy attempt at origami placed on one side and the flecky-textured gum-sole of a welly-boot, sitting on the other.


*It is perhaps worth noting that some names have several images attached to them and these will swap themselves in and out, at random. For example, although not a particularly common name in this day and age, Hilary (or Hillary) is a pantry or larder room; an ironing board being collapsed, or a garlic press— but never a combination of the multiple images.

Many names have multiple images and associations attached to them. Also, when people become a regular fixture in my life, and I know them well, I begin to just see an image of them (or a feature or characteristic I remember strongly about them), as opposed to the weird imagery that I first associated with their name.

For example, my girlfriend is called Chantell. Before Chantell became a daily fixture in my life, I associated ‘Chantell’ (or more commonly, ‘Chantelle’) as a pair of lips with an index finger being brought up to them (I guess from the fact that Chantell sounds like ‘shan’t tell’). However; now, whenever I hear the name Chantell(e), I automatically just see my girlfriend’s radiant face, straight on, in a passport photo pose.

Similarly, colleagues and family members who are significant and whose presence is frequent in my life, tend to just have their ‘photos’ assigned to their name, or a split-screen of a ‘photo’ and also of my original association with that name. Sometimes this ‘photo’ of my familiar person will get transferred to the association of someone new I meet who happens to share the same name as them.

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13 Responses

  1. Hm I didn’t know this was unusual. Does it just go for names tho, or word-sounds in general? I have a thing where some words just sound “ugly” to me both for pure phonetics and associations, while others are the opposite. I know several languages and I learnt some just because they are pleasant phonetically.

    1. Whereas I struggle with ones I might need to learn for practical reasons, but the sound gives me the wrong sensations.

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