Resolving the Name Ambiguity in “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine”

Pages: 6
Words: 1733


Ambiguities in writing or speech can distort the intended meaning. Therefore, promptly resolving them is necessary to facilitate clear, coherent, and continuous communication. In Thom Jones’ “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” ambiguity is evident in various forms, including the naming of the characters. My approach to resolving this ambiguity is to use psychological principles that encourage individual and group cognition and learning functions.

Notably, psychological principles fall under five major categories: motivation, context and learning, cognition and learning, social and emotional components, and assessment. The principles that enable the cognition and learning function include a growth mindset, practice, prior knowledge, facilitating context, self-regulation, limits of stage theories, feedback, and creativity. The discovery made is that the use of ambiguous-sounding names in the text subtly describes characters in the story.


Summary of the Story’s Dynamics

Thom Jones’ “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine” is a dynamic masterclass in its atmosphere, tone, and control. It is about Kid Dynamite – a teenage boxer – with a lot on his mind about life. From the onset, the author presents Kid Dynamite as an ardent boxing lover preparing for an upcoming tournament with an opponent that beats him the previous year. In the build-up to the match, the teenage boxer’s head twirls with imaginations of his estranged father, troubled association with a stepfather, life’s critical transformation, and, most importantly, meeting Sonny Liston – his inspiration. Without nostalgia, the author – as a finer stylist – renders the story with honest realism.

An Interpretive Problem

An interpretive problem emanates from textual ambiguity. It refers to the phenomenon where different readers of a text get variable meanings from a piece of writing. How scholars deal with interpretive problems varies depending on the nature of the book or article involved. In some cases, it is possible to achieve consensus on what the author intended based on contextual information, creativity, and the application of other psychological principles to reasoning and learning. In other cases, it is difficult or impossible to derive meaning. In some of these problematic instances, the text in question may create a paradox that perplexes even the original author. Nonetheless, as already described, most scholars use existing psychological principles to situate meaning in complex pieces of writing overridden by paradoxes and ambiguity.

This Paper’s Thesis

The naming of characters in the text follows a non-conventional approach that creates ambiguity and interpretive problems because it is unclear whether the author is describing the characters or referring to them by name.

Essay Sections

Psychological Framework

As noted earlier, the psychological frameworks utilized here are the cognitive and learning perspectives. The cognitive framework or perspective appeals to a person’s ability to discern information by utilizing input from the senses. The learning perspective, on the other hand, refers to one’s ability to acquire and understand new information. The two processes are interrelated and can contribute equally and effectively in addressing textual and psychological ambiguities and interpretive problems.

Although various principles of the cognition and learning functions exist, the ambiguity in the text is resolved using only three of them. The selected frameworks are prior knowledge, facilitating context, self-regulation, and creativity. One way to remove the identified ambiguity is to learn new things based on existing information. Similarly, it is possible to understand what the author intended by basing learning on context. Thus, generalizing the acquisition of new information to new contexts can be facilitated in cases where it is not spontaneous. In all these quests for information, self-regulation may be needed as it assists in the careful selection of information. Lastly, it is possible to foster creativity in interacting with the text to understand what the author intends with his ambiguous assignment of names to the characters.

The Story in the Psychological Framework’s Context

One can understand the story in the psychological framework’s context by looking at its various dynamics. The first one touches on the main character’s father and their relationship. Kid Dynamite’s biological father was a boxer too. In his fond recollections of his father, Kid Dynamite admits that his father was nice, although he (the father) was not around much. The teenage boxer notes with a keenness that “my father used to take me to the gym when I was a kid. He thought I was a sissy. Took me to Chicago where I met big-time fighters. Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Tony Zale, Ernie Terell – guys who were his actual friends” (Jones).

However, although Kid Dynamite seemed to love his biological father, the mother did not want Kid Dynamite to follow in the father’s life path. Indeed, Kid’s mother was concerned that her son was like his father and could end up in a nuthouse too. Thus, she advised her son to study more rather than focus on boxing because, to her, the kid had “geometry problems” (Jones). Kid Dynamite was not impressed by the remarks, especially coming from his mother, who should have been his biggest cheerleader rather than critic.

Kid Dynamite also had a troubled relationship with his sickly stepfather. They seemed to have little in common, and the stepfather was certain that his stepson would lose the upcoming match. Perhaps it explains why Kid Dynamite felt helpless at some point and even exclaimed that he was good for nothing and did not know what to do when the preparation and the fighting were over. Kid Dynamite only drew his hopes from the love of the game and the realization that his biological father could fight anyone despite his small stature. Living with an unsupportive stepfather and pursuing a career that seemed to have destroyed the life of the biological father was not easy. However, Kid Dynamite never lost focus and continued with his rigorous preparations for the most important fight of his life yet.

Lastly, Kid Dynamite was aware that life around him was changing, with meeting Sonny Liston being one of the most important occurrences of his life. Kid first met Sonny Liston one summer after the kid lost in the Golden Gloves tournament’s finals. “Charles “Sonny” Liston was the most frightening person Kid Dynamite had ever seen” (Jones). However, he (Liston) turned out to be the kid’s most important motivator. The kid learned a great deal of information from Sonny Liston’s training and approach to boxing. This information and set of skills proved useful in the end when the kid utilized them in his final successful fight. Indeed, after meeting Sonny Liston, the kid applied himself to the game of boxing with revitalized potency. The Kid remained committed to a rigorous routine that included exercising in the morning, swimming in the evening, lifting weights, running to work, and doing extra neck bridges. He was now inspired and was hopeful he was going to win the fight before him.

Throughout, the author gives his characters ambiguous names. On the one hand, they are just describing a person. On the other hand, they are fully-fledged official names. For example, Kid Dynamite’s stepfather Cancer Frank was suffering from cancer. Frank’s wife – the kid’s mother – was called the Driver, although she was not always on the steering wheel. The kid himself was a teenager, making his name an appropriate title for him as a teenager too. Moreover, “Kid Dynamite” was one of the boxer Mike Tyson’s nicknames and a former rock and roll band. Therefore, it is nerve-wracking seeing a fictional teenage boxer with the former nickname of a real-life boxer and music band.

In the psychological framework of cognition and learning, readers may struggle a little with the author’s presentation of the characters and their names. For example, in the beginning, these character names appear unusual but proper in that there is no contradictory information about them.

However, as the story proceeds, it becomes apparent that the author may be communicating in cross-purposes by using these unusual names. The author even goes an extra mile to disregard some grammatical rules in the use of the article “the” with names of people. Therefore, as the story begins, the reader recognizes the unusual nature of the names of the characters. As the story proceeds, the reader learns that these names are more than simple nouns because they describe the conditions of the characters. In this regard, cognition and learning play an important role in influencing the acquisition of knowledge about the characters.


From a careful assessment of the text, the use of ambiguous names is a stylistic device that adds interest and flavor to the story. Although these are random names, they are carefully selected to fit the character’s description and circumstances. Thus, a reader can deduce – from examining the characters’ names – what each of them represents. Kid Dynamite represents a dedicated, upcoming boxer, for example, while Cancer Frank represents a stepfather who has cancer. This naming approach simplifies the author’s work even though it introduces ambiguity and interpretive problems.

In everyday life, the proper use of capitalization allows the reader to distinguish between the use of a word a noun and a verb. In the text, the use of capitalization partly resolves the ambiguity represented by the names of the characters. For example, Cancer Frank is spelled with capital C and capital F, suggesting that both “Cancer” and “Frank” are proper nouns. However, in the description of Kid Dynamite, the author uses the article “the” to refer to the teenage boxer.

It is unconventional to use any article in front of a proper noun, unless the description that follows offers some comparative information. Using any article directly in front of a person’s name defies convention, and it is exactly what the author did in the short story. For example, the author uses “the Kid” to refer to Kid Dynamite in the story. This open disregard for established rules is a major source of ambiguity in the short story.


The author named the characters in his text non-conventionally, creating interpretive problems and ambiguity. It is unclear whether the designations describe the characters or name them. Thankfully, by using cognition and learning framework, one can resolve the ambiguity present in the text. Both frameworks let the reader understand that the use of ambiguous-sounding names allowed the author to describe the characters subtle. By so doing, the author provided a more interesting and well-considered story. Each of the characters’ name is an accurate pointer of their conditions and circumstances.

Work Cited

Jones, Thom. “Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine: Stories.The New York Times. Web.