It’s on the tip of my tongue…

I like to write a short Goodreads review for each book I read, if only to remind myself what I liked or found interesting later. I was recently reviewing the children’s fantasy novel A Face Like Glass, and I wanted to say how much I enjoyed the way all the small mysteries related to one overarching one—but what was the word for that relationship exactly? I thought maybe they were ancillary mysteries or component mysteries, but I felt like there was a particular word I wanted, starting with sub-. Subordinate? Subjacent? In the end I went with subsidiary, but even that didn’t sound quite like the word I had in mind.

It’s a frustratingly common experience when you can’t remember a word or a name, when it’s “on the tip of your tongue”—you know that somewhere between a few hours and a few days from now, the word you were missing will burst into your head for no reason. It seems to happen to everyone: around the world people use various “on the tongue” metaphors to describe the jangling sensation of having a word in mind but only being able to remember what it means (and maybe how it starts). And while I am confident that as I get older I will be treated to plenty of these “senior moments,” I can also remember an incident as a small child where, unable to remember the word for knees, I had to resort to calling them “leg-elbows.”

Why does the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon occur? Is it just another way we don’t live in a perfect world? After all, when my computer mis-loads a webpage or my cursor gets stuck, I regard it as a mistake and reload or reboot. Is it just a bug in my brain’s programming when I ask for a word and it fails to deliver?

On the contrary, I can think of two upsides to having brains with tips-of-tongues, even though I wish sometimes I could turn off that feature. First, forgetting a word reinforces its connections to related words. When you are caught in the unpleasant situation of almost knowing the word you want, your brain scrambles to follow any clue it can: In what other circumstances would you use that word? When might you use it next? What does the word itself sound like? In trying to remember the word I wanted for the way the mysteries in A Face Like Glass related, I thought of the relationship of a piece of fabric to its threads (component?), a palm to its surrounding fingers (ancillary?), a gemstone to its different-facing sides (facet?), a river to the streams that feed into it (tributary?). The relationship of a parent company to its branches (subsidiary?) seemed closest. Would I have made these connections if the perfect word had come to mind at once? Perhaps the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon exists as a way to make sure your mental vocabulary is strongly interconnected, at the cost of occasionally being without the word you need.

My attempt to induce a tip-of-the-tongue-like state: What one word fits with all these others? I’ve probably made it too easy, but it’s hard for me to tell given that I know the answer.

The second use I see for the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is that the feeling of having forgotten a word helps you recognize the need for new ones. Every word was invented because someone felt that there was a concept they wanted to convey, but for which no other word was quite right. Perhaps the times that you struggle to think of the word you’re looking for are just practice for when a new concept needs a coining. It’s now been over a week since I reviewed A Face Like Glass, and I’ve started to doubt that the word I wanted—something that suggests being surrounded by and built from smaller underlying pieces of the same type as the whole—exists at all. Any suggestions?

4 thoughts on “It’s on the tip of my tongue…

  1. The type of relationship between whole and part that you are describing does sound like it merits a name of its own! It feels like ‘recursive’ should be close, but it isn’t exactly it I guess.

    Freud had a fascinating theory on all of this, cf. his Psychopathology of everyday life (first couple of chapters). In a nutshell, and if I recall correctly, we forget the things which bring up ‘taboo’ associations, or which remind us of particularly uncomfortable circumstances in our own lives, present or past. I read the book when I was 16, and it was probably the first time in my life that I encountered the notion of the ‘subconscious’, and the possibility that our thoughts are affected by processes which have a logic of their own, and which in a sense ‘rule’ us. This is a very Nietzschean notion, and indeed Freud was influenced by Nietzsche, although I didn’t know that then.

    I always like to approach these things (i.e. the tip-of-the-tongue experience) phenomenologically. It’s sort of a knee-jerk reaction perhaps, but I do not much care for the materialistic-biological approach of human consciousness. It’s not that I think it’s necessarily false or inherently misguided, but it tends to be simplistic and reductionist, and to leave the most important matters untouched. So I ask myself: How does it feel to have this experience? What kind of thoughts and feelings does it conjure up?

    And what it does, at least to me, is that it unsettles. It is not so bad to find out one day that we can’t run a mile as fast as we used to, but once we have forgotten something, it reminds us that we can’t take our memories for granted, and our memories is in large part who we are. The idea we have about ourselves lives in our minds, and the tip-of-the-tongue experience reminds us that this mind is not always the reliable container that we normally pretend it to be.

    Well, at least that’s my take on it, but you may or may not like my more ‘existentialist’ perspective. [I tried to post this comment twice before, but evidently it didn’t take. So now I’m trying to resurrect it again — in keeping with your riddle, how fitting.]


    1. You’re right; it is an unsettling experience. And to me, not just in a conceptual way, where I think “Oh, memory is not as reliable as I wish it were—what unfortunate implications,” but in a visceral, “I have to find this word I can’t think of” way. My mind will keep feeling the absence like a missing tooth, until the word comes back and my mental vocabulary feels whole again.

      I managed to find the previous versions of your comment; somehow they went straight to spam without even asking me to approve them. (I didn’t know that could happen; now I know to check the comment spam folder periodically.) The “aaaatos” version went through, I think, because you’ve had approved comments under that account in the past.


  2. First of all, I love Face Like Glass too. And your review seems to be hitting at one of the best parts — the first third feels like there is a lot of world building extra information or it’s more like the travelogue structure of Thick as Thieves where Neverfell is going to magically float through the different parts of Caverna solving isolated mysteries just so we can see the whole society — but no! It all fits together perfectly!

    Also, I got Easter pretty quickly, but I love the “island” part of that. My experience of riddles is that I either get them immediately or never.

    As for the word, my friends who run the escape room game refer to their overarching puzzle that requires solving several smaller puzzles to get the means to complete the last big puzzle as the “meta puzzle”. I realize you’re asking how to name the building block puzzles, but in a pinch you can take the “leg elbows” route and describe the larger puzzle instead of the smaller puzzles.

    I like your theory on the benefits of this annoying happenstance. I’ve had that experience when working on my novel when I have a word that’s just not QUITE right. It’s usually a matter of it being the perfect definition for the concept but not having the right connotations and associations for the story. I’ve gotten really deep into my feelings for some random words that way.


    1. Hmm, yes, “meta mystery” does seem appropriate, since it’s a mystery whose answer depends on the solution to other, smaller mysteries. The only other really similar situation I could think of was a mushroom that, when you uproot it, triggers the sprouting of other, smaller mushrooms nearby. But those are called “fruitbodies” and “fruitbody mystery” didn’t sound very good.


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