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.
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?