- Cameron M. Clark
What was that word?? Oh right, Lethologica!
We've all been there. Confidently gliding through a complicated sentence, elegantly explaining our most interesting thoughts to a friend or colleague, when your brain reaches for and, quite surprisingly, fails to find the the exact word you're looking for in conversation. Well, it's not that your brain fails to find it, right? Your brain knows that the word it's looking for does exist, it just can't seem to drudge up from memory anything more specific or helpful about it. With great effort we may be able to determine what letter this mystery word starts with, or even how the word makes us feel (e.g. funny vs. serious, highbrow vs. lowbrow, technical vs. artistic etc), we just can't put our finger on the actual word. It's as if your brain has searched its library, located the particular entry or book that will be critically important at this exact juncture in the conversation, and for some reason found it glued to the shelf, utterly inaccessible for the moment it was intended for.
And then of course, your conversation sudders, lurches, and jolts as you try to conceal the fact that your word is glued to the proverbial lexical shelf. The conversation continues and eventually ends - after which the word frustratingly comes back to you the moment you no longer need it.
Sometimes people describe this experience as feeling as though they know the word, but just not being able to actually say it - leading to it often being referred to as the 'tip of the tongue phenomenon', or 'lethologica' for the more lexicologically inclined.
When is the last time this happened to you? For me, it was just a few days ago in speaking with friends about COVID-19. I knew there was a somewhat quirky medical word for 'objects or materials that are likely to carry infection', but couldn't muster it to consciousness in the moment. Later that evening, out of nowhere - fomites!
If you experience this tip of the tongue phenomenon, you're in good company. Studies have found that its impacts are not limited to specific languages, nor to specific ages. That is, most if not all people are be affected by it from time to time. So, the question is not so much what to do in order to avoid it, but rather how to manage it the next time it inevitably occurs.
Fortunately the science provides some guidance on this. One clever study from 2008 induced the tip of the tongue phenomenon in research participants, and then let them struggle to find the word for either 10 or 30 seconds before mercifully giving them the answer. Then, the researchers invited participants back to the lab two days later to see if the length of struggle (10 or 30 seconds) had any effect on their memory for these words. Somewhat surprisingly, the researchers found that the longer people toiled in the 'tip of the tongue state' two days earlier, the worse their memory was for the word!
They note: "Our assumption is that a longer time spent trying to resolve a tip of the tongue state amounts to more incorrect practice. Metaphorically speaking, this is akin to spinning one’s tyres in the snow, resulting in nothing more than the creation of a deeper rut."
The takeaway? The next time you find yourself grasping for a word that is so clearly glued to your mental library shelf - don't spin your tires, don't create a deeper rut. Be kind yourself, and forgive the minor setback. Rather than ruminate on your failing or struggling at length to set it right, simply make a mental note to find the right word and make an effort to look it up later. The science suggests that with this approach you will likely have less difficulty plucking that word from your mental library shelves when you need it next.
Warriner, A. B., & Humphreys, K. R. (2008). Learning to fail: Reoccurring tip-of-the-tongue states. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(4), 535–542. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17470210701728867