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What’s the word for when you can’t think of the word?

Dear Cecil:

There is a word used to describe the condition where you can't remember the word you want to use — I can't remember it. I think it starts with a. Can you help me?


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I’m surrounded by comedians. What you claim to be suffering from is aphasia. Strictly speaking, aphasia is an impairment of the language function that is caused by brain damage. The word is used figuratively to describe that “I’ve got it on the tip of my tongue” condition. It’s from a Greek root that means “to speak.”

Received following the airing of The Straight Dope TV show, Fall 1996

Dear Cecil:

For two months I’ve faithfully watched the Straight Dope TV show every Sunday night on the A&E channel. Through the great hosting of Mike Lukas, I have vicariously experienced the mystery and wonder of your oh-so-reclusive genius. So imagine how surprised I was when you got something wrong! On one program there was a question about what the word is for not remembering a word. Then the show said there wasn’t a word, according to the folks over at Merriam-Webster. Guys, the word is lethologica. It is in a dictionary of obscure words called Weird Words by Erwin Berent and Rod L. Evans (1995).

— Alex Tam, Burnaby, British Columbia

Dear Cecil:

A more precise term is anomia, [which according to the experts] “is a deficit in finding words and is the most conspicuous feature of aphasia.”

— Jim Benjamin, via the Internet

Dear Cecil:

[The proper term is] dysnomia. … The most common time for the condition is while taking medicinal antidepressants.

— Elbert H. Seymour, Carnesville, Georgia

Dear Cecil:

Psychologists refer to this as the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon.

— Joseph G., via the Internet

Ah, the marketplace of ideas. I’m just glad I’m not asking you guys for directions to the interstate.

This issue has been nagging Cecil for a long time. In the first Straight Dope book I said the word for when you couldn’t think of the word was “aphasia.” Actually, this is the term for a language impairment due to brain damage. But I figured one might use it metaphorically to mean the “I’ve-got-it-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue” syndrome. Or at least I might use it that way, being the kind of guy who thinks of dictionary definitions as something to get you started.

But let’s face it, I was winging it. So when we did the TV show I told Mike to say, yeah, there’s this word “aphasia,” but it’s not really the word for when you can’t think of a word. Fact was, I couldn’t think of the word for when you can’t think of the word, presumptive proof in my mind that there wasn’t one.

Still, one recognizes that in science new information is always coming in. Of the submissions above, anomia and dysnomia, which are more or less synonymous, are closer to what we’re after than aphasia. But they’re pretty much confined to the clinic, and in any case they don’t really get at the guts of the thing, which is the experience of almost knowing a word, not drawing a complete blank. Lethologica has the required meaning but, from what I can tell, is found strictly in books that have words like “lethologica” in them. In addition to Weird Words, cited above, it also turns up in Paul Dickson’s Words (1982).

The truth seems to be, judging from a collection of journal articles cited by Joseph G., that the real, or at least commonly used, term for “tip of the tongue phenomenon” is “tip of the tongue phenomenon.” One hopes this is a trend. A few years ago, you may remember, I turned up the medical term “ice cream headache,” which is completely unmedical in that you don’t have to consult a doctor to find out what it means.

Just for that reason I can’t see this kind of thing catching on. You tell your shrink, “Doc, I’ve got this problem where there’s a word on the tip of my tongue,” and the doctor says, “Hm, you’ve got tip-of-the-tongue syndrome.” You’re going to pay a hundred bucks an hour for that? Whereas if he says you’ve got dysnomia or lethologica or something, you think, wow, maybe I can form a support group and get on Oprah. It’s human nature to want to know things, and also human nature to think they’re not very interesting when you find out.

Cecil Adams

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