The feeling of forgetting a word just before you say it or write it has got to be in the top 10 most low-key annoying things to happen to a person on a regular basis. Okay, so losing your keys is probably more of a problem in the long run, but failing to remember a word that was JUST IN YOUR HEAD TWO SECONDS AGO cannot be beaten for frustration levels. It just can’t.
Scientists call this – extremely scientifically – “tip of the tongue phenomenon”, and a new study in JSTOR Daily has sought to understand it a little better. Linguist Chi Luu, who authored the paper, describes losing a word as being a failure in “encoding language”.
“Words are not atomic units as is sometimes assumed,” she said. “Lexical retrieval is made up of layers accessed in sequence, so that in forming our thoughts, we choose the right semantics and encode the syntax of what we want to say before we even begin to say it. The final layer is articulating a word’s phonology, but in a tip of the tongue state, that encoding breaks down.” Basically: you know exactly what you want to say, you just have absolutely no idea how to say it.
The study also suggests that forgetting one word is bad news because that makes it far more likely to happen again – with the same word.
There is a potential way of getting round this, however – though you will have to enlist the help of a less forgetful friend. They should “gently nudge you” towards the word you were thinking of by giving you hints. They shouldn’t, apparently, just tell you the word, because that doesn’t help with the recoding element of the phenomenon.
Unfortunately, this does mean that your conversational partner actually has to know what the fuck you’re talking about. Good news for people who are friends with literal Mystic Meg: bad news for the rest of us.