A Bicycle Named Stacey Pilgrim

Here is a video of my new bicycle:

It's a Strida folding bike. My folks got it for me for my birthday, and I absolutely love it. I named it "Stacey Pilgrim."

Stacey Pilgrim is the sister of the protagonist of one of my favorite movies of all time, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."*

Fans of the movie will know that Stacey is not a major character. I was asked why I didn't name the bike "Ramona Flowers," after the love interest in the movie. There are two reasons. First, I think the character Ramona is kind of a sarcastic, unpleasant person in the movie. But the second reason is a cognitive science reason-- the name "Ramona Flowers" does not describe well an angular bike like a Strida. Here's a picture of a Strida with some dude riding it.

As I was riding the bike, I was trying to think of a name, and "Tracy" and "Stacy" both came to mind. In my mind, these are good names for angular things. "Ramona" is a good name for a rounded thing. Sound crazy? It turns out that sounds are not as arbitrary as linguists tend to think. In one experiment, participants were shown these two images:

And asked which one was kiki and which one was bouba. Which do you think was bouba?

95% of people thought the first one was kiki and the second one was bouba (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001).

Em sounds are associated with curvy shapes, and plosives such as the "k" sound are associated with spikier shapes. "Sn" sounds are more likely to be associated with nasal meanings, such as sneeze and snore (Robson, 2011).

This is part of a controversial field of study called phonosemantics, which claims that phonemes have meaning. As I mentioned above, linguists tend to think that phonemes do not have meaning, but the ones I've talked to believe it but only cite anecdotal evidence and reasoning (as opposed to empirical studies) to support their view.

There is empirical evidence for phonosemantics. There appear to be cross-language similarities
with these meanings.  Participants in one experiment could guess the meanings of antonyms (e.g., fast/slow) in foreign languages better than chance (Robson, 2011).

Why would sounds have meanings? We don't know for sure, but there are theories. One is that the act of making a sound physically resembles other experiences. For example, the "br" sound at the beginning of a word involves building up pressure behind the lips and tongue and then releasing the air suddenly. Words with "br" at the beginning are more likely to be associated with some kind of breaking through of a threshold: breach, break, bran, branch, brawl, brief, brittle, brook, browse, bruise (Magnus, 2001).

So, looking at my bike, I think Stacey Pilgrim is a much more appropriate name than Ramona Flowers, due to the angular nature of the bike. What do you think?

Further Reading:


Magnus, 2001: http://www.trismegistos.com/Dissertation/DissIntro.htm

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia: A window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(2), 3-34.

Robson, D. (2011). Kiki or bouba? In search of language's missing link. New Scientist, 2821, 30-33.

* Right now my favorite movies of all time are
       1) Kiki's Delivery Service
       2) Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
       3) Bruno
       4) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

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Anonymous said…
I guess I should have been named Ramona :)
Stacy M
Anonymous said…
Thank you. Interesting study!

Ali Arya
Chris said…
Huh. Well, I too have a folding bike but admittedly, I have not named it. (I have a Montague though, not a Strida).

As for the phonosemantics,I'm not sure I agree. Seems like there are a LOT of counterexamples out there...
Jim Davies said…
Yes, there are counter examples, which is why it should only be believed if the evidence supports it in terms of numbers. Check out Magnus's dissertation for that evidence. http://www.trismegistos.com/Dissertation/

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