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Verbal Energy

Earworms and the 'mononymous' phenomenon

Doing a spell-check on a pop singer's name, the Monitor's language columnist is reminded how writers can get words, as well as music, 'stuck' in their ears.

By Ruth Walker / September 28, 2012



Hey, Beyoncé, do you know what they're calling you over at Wikipedia? "Mononymous." No kidding.

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I was looking to confirm the acute accent on the pop singer's final "e" the other day. In the process, I learned that her unusual name comes from her mother's maiden name and was disabused of my vague notion that it is a portmanteau for "beyond outré."

But what's this "mononymous"? Wikipedia has a whole long article that begins, "A mononymous person is an individual who is known and addressed by a mononym, or 'single name,' " and then goes on to mention people as diverse as Cicero, Napoleon, and – Beyoncé.

One can imagine a convention of Mononymous Anonymous. The Classical Division – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – would be so busy disputing among themselves they wouldn't see they were blocking the hors d'oeuvres. The Great Painters Division – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian – would all gravitate to the north-facing windows. And the 21st-Century Entertainment Division would each expect to be the center of attention, as only a 21st-century mononymous person can.

I could also imagine Oprah trying to get Socrates as a guest on one of her talk shows, and then seeing the deal founder when Socrates insists on asking all the questions.

Why am I stuck on this odd word I'd never heard of until I went searching for that acute accent? Maybe because I've long thought the right term for single-namers is uninomial, which I picked up from a piece in The New Yorker years ago. It was an airy observation, back in 1975, that "Halston, the uninomial clothes designer, has launched a collection of men's clothing."

Mononymous is from Greek, whereas uninomial is from Latin, if it's a word at all, which is unclear. Even my computer thinks I mean uninominal (a legislative system in which each district elects a single member, as in the US House of Representatives) and keeps autocorrecting me like a too-clever-by-half pet monkey.

But if writers experience language as a form of music – as this one does – then they are susceptible to getting words stuck in their ears the way others get tunes stuck.

Earworm, as a term for this phenomenon, goes back to 1987, according to Paul McFed­ries's website "Word Spy." He explains the term as a literal borrowing from the German Ohrwurm. "Sticky tune" or "cognitive itch" are synonyms, and the Portuguese, he adds, use a term that means "ear chewing gum."

The sticking power of mononymous is enhanced, if that's the word, by its sonic proximity to "Manamana." This nonsense song, whose title seems to have various spellings, was originally part of the soundtrack for a racy Italian movie in the 1960s, but then, after who knows what process of vector transmission, popped up in the cultural sphere of "Sesame Street" and the Muppets. Sic transit gloria mundi, as one of the Latin-speaking mononyms might put it.

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