A type of synaesthesia which I experience in which non-food words or names automatically evoke the concepts of particular foods: is lexical-gustatory synaesthesia an evolutionary adaptation?

(last addition April 2015)

pilgrim (word) – fatty roast chicken with nice greasy gravy made from the roasting pan juices with plenty of chicken fat

Crombie (surname) – crumble in a fruit crumble dessert

Abercrombie (surname) – apple crumble

Muriel (name) – bland breakfast cereal with milk

Date (word for unit of time) – date that you eat

Date (slang word for anus) – as above

Dateline (TV program) – date that you eat

testosterone – (word) – Toblerone (brand of very nice chocolate bar)

Blake (name) – Flake bar (a brand of chocolate bar with a distinctive structure)

Debbie, Deb (name) – “Deb” brand instant mashed potato reconstituted, something I’ve only tried very few times, mostly in childhood

Deborah (name) – no associations

vegie (colloquial word) – potato chips or some fried food, the suffix “ie” or “y” turns the word into greasy junk food like a hot potato chip because it transforms the word into slang. I hate the word “vegie” because the food association seems inappropriate or misleading.

vegetable (word) – weak association, mixed steamed vegetables

China (name of a nation, spoken in a cheerful, excited tone by a woman) – glace ginger, a treat I haven’t eaten for years.

Jam (word describing informal musical collaboration) – jam (delicious fruit spread)

Gurkha – gherkin

serial – breakfast cereal

salary – stick of raw celery (I have never liked the taste of raw celery, but don’t mind it cooked in soups)

parsimonious – parsnip (never liked it, only ever ate it as a part of roast dinners made by my mother when I was a kid)

Swede (nationality) – swede, the dullest vegetable of them all, rather like a parsnip but not quite as horrid

macro (word, word prefix) – macaroni cheese

Marconi (surname) – macaroni cheese

Macri (surname) – macaroni cheese

Tonkin (surname, street name) – pumpkin

Duncan (surname, first name) – pumpkin

Barlow, Barwick (surnames) – barley sugar lollies

Bickley (place name) – blackcurrant jam (this concept evokes a visual image in my mind’s eye of a person eating this jam revoltingly while speaking)

Imperatrice (surname) – vanilla rice custard, liquid and sloshy-sounding

Shorten (surname) – Shortbread (Reminds me of that awful “negro” folk song they made us sing in primary school – “Mammies Lil babies love shortnen shortnen bread” When I think about this song it evokes a vision of the scene of one shady part of the school playground near the girls’ toilet block, in an example of my concept – visual memory of a scene synaesthesia.)

Maggie – fried egg

Eric – egg

Clegg (surname) – egg

Parsons (surname) – Parsons Ricecream (vanilla, tinned rice dessert)

Crean (surname) – cream

Kershaw (surname) – cashew

Grille (word) – grilled and greasy lamb chops

Grylls (surname) – grilled and greasy lamb chops

multi (prefix) – malt, malty

Berkshire Hathaway Inc – Yorkshire pudding

Yorkshire – Yorkshire pudding

out to tender, it feels tender -> tender and moist cooked beef

Lamb, Lambe (surname) -> tender and fatty roast lamb (yum!)

minstrel -> mince (cooked ground beef)

mince (sissy mode of walking) -> mince (cooked ground beef)

mints -> mince (cooked ground beef)

fondle -> fondant

jubilation, jubilant -> jube (jelly confectionary)

jubilee -> jube (jelly confectionary)

abscond -> scone

studio -> stew

custody -> custard

customer -> custard

customs -> custard (not as strong an effect evoked by this word as the effect evoked by the word “custody”)

accustomed -> custard, custard cream biscuits

appraise -> braise

praise -> braise

pastor -> pasta

scheme -> ice cream

kidney-shaped dish, pool -> kidney, steak and kidney pie

Kennedy -> kidney

Pye (surname) -> pie

Pi -> pie

Murray -> meat pie

Yokine -> yoghurt

“100 megs” -> nutmeg

Meg -> nutmeg (a spice used in traditional British/Australian cookery, such as sprinkled on top of egg custards or custard tarts)

Charmain -> chow mein

Carmody (surname) -> cardamom (a spice with a strong smell)

Tegan -> Tegel’s Turkeys

Fiona -> Passiona (a brand of soft drink that used to have a little bit of passionfruit juice in it many years ago, but no longer does, and isn’t much good at all)

Prue, Prudence -> prune

Prude -> prune

Kate, Cate -> cake

Charlotte -> chocolate or pudding of some kind

Sophie -> Copha (artery-clogging gunk that is best known as an ingredient of chocolate crackles, a traditional treat for childrens’ parties)

Jessica -> dessicated coconut, as sprinkled on top of my mother’s home-made warm chocolate milk custard, like she made it over 30 years ago

Candy -> rod-shaped mint-flavoured rock candy coloured white and pink

Carmel -> caramel, caramel butters (my favourite type of confectionery as a child)

Hamilton (surname) -> caramel-flavoured ricecream (can’t buy this flavour any more)

Hamil (surname) -> caramel-flavoured ricecream (can’t buy this flavour any more)

Cheryl , Sheryl -> glace cherry, Cherry Ripe chocolate bar

Renee -> Mornay (salmon mornay is a food that I mostly ate as a child, cooked by my Mum)

Rosemary -> the herb Rosemary

Sherwood -> sherbet (can almost taste the fizz)

Sherbet (1970s pop group) -> sherbet (fizzy contectionery)

Fried (surname or part of surname) -> Fried (cooked in fat or oil)

Ceduna (place name) -> tuna

Tunisia (country) -> tuna

Salman (foreign first name) -> salmon

salmon (the colour) – salmon, the fish that can be a food

Breen (surname) -> fishy brine (as in a tin of tuna or salmon)

Jesus -> cheese, cheeses

Cheddle (surname) -> cheddar cheese

Chesney (surname) -> sounds pretty cheesy to me

Bega (place name, cheese brand name) -> cheese

Grattan (surname) -> gratin (french word associated with cheese toppings) -> cheese

Curry (surname and place name) -> classic Australian version of an Indian-style curry, yellow, fairly hot and including ground fenugreek

Mueller (place name, surname) -> museli

Polonium (element in chemistry) – polony

Polonius (name form Shakespeare) -polony

Polonaise (a kind of music) – polony

Bolognese (from Bologa) – spaghetti bolognese

Sardinian (from Sardinia) – sardines

Hutton (street name and surname) -> some kind of nasty fatty smallgood meat product, something like polony with grainy white fat residue on the outside (There is a smallgoods company with this name, and it also sounds like “mutton”)

Murcott (surname) -> apricot (dried, the only type of apricot that I was given as a child) The idea that there is a variety of mandarin that is called a Murcott mandarin is a bit of a mindf…. to me, quite frankly, because the name “Murcott” and the word “mandarin” both automatically make me think of different foods, neither of them being exactly the same as the taste of a Murcott mandarin.

Walcott -> walnut

Waldorf -> walnut

McCusker -> bread crust, cereal rusk

Ryan -> bacon rind, cooked bacon fatty bits

Ayn Rand – -> bacon rind

Marmion -> marmalade (I can almost taste it)

Marmaduke -> marmalade (ditto)

Marshall (surname) -> marshmallow

marshal (word) -> marshmallow

Mandarin (language) -> mandarin(e) citrus fruit (the Imperial type that is not a hybrid)

mandarin (word) -> mandarin(e) citrus fruit (I can almost smell it)

lime (as in the white calcium stuff that is very alkaline) -> lime (citrus fruit, lime flavouring)

Frankfurt -> Frankfurt sausage

Maroochydore -> Cherry Ripe chocolate bar

rifle -> Cherry Ripe chocolate bar (these were heavily advertised when I was a kid)

scholarship -> a crispy batter on a piece of fish in fish and chips

scholar -> as above

Heinz (name) -> Heinz tinned food for preschoolers (a tinned product that was on the market when I was a child consisting of chunks of beef and vegetables)

Campbell (surname) – some kind of thickened canned stew or soup with chunks of beef and potato and carrot and stuff

Kojonup (place name) -> coconut

Punnet (word) -> whipping cream in a carton (did I once confuse the words “punnet” and “pint”?)

Notes, Ideas and Questions

So, now you know why I didn’t name any of our kids Tegan or Prue or Carmel. There is actually a synaesthesia-related pattern in the names that I chose for the kids, but that is a subject for another post.

By far most of the foods and drinks that are evoked by this type of syanesthesia are things that I ate during my early childhood, and many of them are food or drinks that I only ate as a child, but not as an adult. At the risk of stating the obvious, the foods and drinks evoked are very delicious. They are things that I very much enjoyed when I was a kid.

There is a definite but subtle distinction to be made between this synaesthesia and learned cultural associations. The name of the city Frankfurt automatically makes me think of those dreadful pinkish-red coloured mini-sausages that have traditionally been cooked in a large pan of hot water for kids’ parties, but the city of Hamburg does not automatically make me think of hamburgers, except in a silly joking sense. There is a definite difference between the way that these names of German cities make me think of specific foods. My association between the place name Bega and cheese is similar to my association between the city Frankfurt and sausages. It is more vivid and automatic than a mere asociation created by the advertising of a brand of cheese. I don’t automatically think of cheese when confronted with the word “coon”, even though Coon is also a well-known brand of cheese. It’s a similar thing with the name Heinz. The association between the name and the food is not merely knowledge of a brand name – the concept of a specific food product is automatically evoked. Bega isn’t a brand-name of cheese that I recall being around in my childhood, so this shows that this type of synaesthesia appears to not be exclusively formed in early childhood. There are quite a few cheese-related associations listed here, so I’d say cheese is a food that has had quite an impact on my mind, probably because it is so very delicious to eat.

My attitude towards this synaesthesia isn’t completely neutral. Food-related surnames seem ridiculous to me and I find it hard to avoid thinking of food when hearing them. Some examples: Mr Peach, Mrs Cherry, Miss Sultana. Yes, I know this seems childish. I am mildly annoyed by the childishness of this synaesthesia. It’s as though part of my brain never grew up.

I consider this type of synaesthesia to be very close to flavoured word synaesthesia or “lexical-gustatory synaesthesia” that has already been described by synesthesia researchers. I don’t quite have this type of synaesthesia. I suspect that this type of synaesthesia might even fall under the definition of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, but my synaesthesia always involves words or names that sound similar to food words-none of the words involved in my food-related synaesthesia look like random pairings. This is a feature that has been mentioned in some published descriptions of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, but is apparently not a universal feature. On page 149 of the book Wednesday is indigo blue by US synesthesia experts Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman there is a discussion of examples of lexical-gustatory synaesthesia that operate in the same way as mine. Some examples given are:
dogma -> hot dogs
Jackson -> cracker jacks and
Cincinnati -> cinnamon rolls
which looks like exactly the same type of phenomenon as my gustatory synaesthesia. There is something about this synaesthesia that possibly hasn’t been noted by any of the syanesthesia experts – when my mind is hijacked by synaesthesia to involuntarily think about a food when I hear or think of a word that sounds the same or similar to a word for that food, it is as though my synaesthesia nudges an ambiguity in the interpretation of the meaning of words towards the direction of interpreting the word as a food word.

Many of these food concepts and words that evoke food concepts appear to be associated with my early childhood, which is I believe consistent with reports by synaesthesia researchers about flavoured-word synaesthesia, and it is also consistent with the early childhood origins of grapheme-colour synaesthesia (a type of synaesthesia that I also have). Words such as “jubilation” and “praise” and the name “Jesus” are words that haven’t been much a part of my life since my mother dragged us kids to church on Sundays a very long time ago. I remember thinking about cheeses in church when I was a kid when the minister was raving on about Jesus. Perhaps this neurological subversion of The Word of God could explain why the religion meme never flourished in my mind. Foods such as braise, stew, steak and kidney pie, chocolate custard with coconut sprinkled on top, sherbet, Copha, Passiona drink and Frankfurt sausages are also much more a part of my distant childhood past than my present. A range of lollies, all of which are ones I enjoyed as a child, are represented among the concepts evoked by this type of synaesthesia (oh, sweet memories!).

There are only three vegetables represented in this phenomenon, and they are vegetables that I never liked, and which are memorable to me for being unpalatable, but there are lots of lollies represented, desserts, children’s party foods, some spices, a herb, heaps of meat and fish-type foods and even a bit of offal. How strange. Did I actually eat any vegetables during my childhood? Was I a salad-dodger, or were there simply no salads served in our family when I was young? Did vegetables have such little appeal to me when I was young that the thought of them didn’t fire off enough neurons to create a synaesthesia association in my brain, and only the ones that evoked negative feelings had enough impact to become permanently a part of this neuropsycholocial phenomenon? If I had been raised in a non-white-Anglo family, a vegetarian family or a twenty-first century family my lexical-gustatory synaesthesia would have been very different.

Is this type of synaesthesia just a case of mistaken brain connections or is it some archaic type of evolutionary adaptation? Generally what is happening here is that my brain is operating on a hardwired bias towards interpreting words and names that sound a bit like words for foods as words for foods. It is as though my brain is set up to never, ever, ever miss out on noticing any discussion that is relevant to food. You can’t tell me that this wouldn’t be a useful feature to have in the ruthless game of life for our distant human ancestors, who would have lived from hand to mouth, and would have had to hunt, gather, steal or scavenge food to survive. Did I hear someone say “roasted antelope”? Did someone mention peaches? You can call me anything you like except late for breakfast!

Two popular books about synaesthesia that include discussion of the lexical-gustatory synaesthete James Wannerton

Cytowic, Richard E. and Eagleman, David M. Wednesday is indigo blue: discovering the brain of synesthesia. MIT Press, 2009.

Ward, Jamie The frog who croaked blue: synesthesia and the mixing of the senses. Routledge, 2008.

James Wannerton’s web site:

Welcome to the World of Synaesthesia  http://www.jwannerton.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/

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