Out of all the things people lose with some regularity — keys, hair ties, single socks — the most underrated frustrating one just might be losing the right word. Misplace a concrete thing and you know what to do: You search for it or you replace it. With a missing word, though, there aren’t a ton of action-oriented options available to you. That term you’re searching for might be riiiight on the tip of your tongue, but most of the time, all you can do about it is stew until you either a) have an epiphany, or b) use some nonsense word like whatchamacallit and move on.
As linguist Chi Luu recently explained in JSTOR Daily, researchers refer to this as “tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon,” and it’s not quite as simple as just blanking out. “Words are not atomic units as is sometimes assumed,” she wrote. “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.” In other words, most of the relevant information stays intact — you still know everything about that thing you’re trying to describe, excerpt for how to form the sounds that allow you to communicate it to someone else.
To add to the frustration, some research suggests that once you experience this with a particular word, that same word is likely to keep on giving you grief in the future — unless you find a way to move past the snag in the moment. As cognitive scientist Karin Humphreys, who studies tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, put it to Mental Floss: “If you keep going down that pathway, it digs that path a little bit more you’re a little bit more likely to fall into that same rut later.”
The best way to get out of that rut altogether, then, is to enlist your conversational partner to gently nudge you toward the word you had in mind, offering hints without giving it away. In one of Humphreys’s past studies, Mental Floss explains the technique:
When participants managed to remember the word they were struggling with on their own, instead of just being told the answer, they were less likely to forget the word on the next test. And when volunteers were given a phonological clue, like the first few letters of the word, they were almost as likely to remember the word later as if they’d figured it out it on their own.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that in order to guide you in the right direction, the other person needs to actually know what you’re talking about. Sometimes, context clues are enough to help them figure out what whatchamacallit really means; sometimes, though, you’re probably just out of luck.