Have you experienced lethologica?

Dubai - Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Wed 8 Dec 2021, 7:22 PM

Language is a delight, but not always: it is subject to afflictions too. The most familiar is lethologica, the condition you suffer when you can’t remember the right word for the thought you are trying to express.

Lethologica happens to everyone — yes, including me! How many of us have gone through that awful feeling when you think of something you know well and wish to convey precisely to the person you are speaking to, but the word for it escapes you? Lethologica is not the same as simply mixing up similar-sounding words, as when people say “reticence” when they mean “reluctance”, a common error. It’s when the word you want is trembling at the tip of your tongue but your mind is simply unable to dredge it up from all the many times you have heard or used it before. This too is pretty common: according to the American Psychiatry Association, 9 out of 10 people will suffer some form of lethologica during their lifetimes.

Lethologica is derived from the Ancient Greek word lethe, “forgetfulness” and another Greek term, logikos, which means “of or relating to thought or reason” (some also relate it to logos, or “word”). There’s a great story about the first part of the word lethologica. The Lethe, known as the River of Oblivion, was one of the rivers that flowed through the realm of Hades, the hellish underworld to which, in Greek mythology, you were banished in death. In these tales, the dead were forced to drink from the waters of the Lethe river in order to forget their past lives on earth.

The affliction of an inability to remember the proper word was first identified as a disorder by the famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in a 1913 study. But it’s really far too common a problem to be elevated to the medical textbooks. It’s also not incurable — though usually you struggle to remember the right word, and the harder you try, the more elusive it gets. (In the worst cases, that can lead to loganamnosis — when the sufferer from lethologica is so obsessed with trying to remember the word that she couldn’t recall, to the point where she’s unable to pay attention to the rest of the conversation.)

With so much to watch on television these days, especially a wide choice of entertainment on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, many also suffer from Lethonomia, the inability to recall the right name. It’s a harmless enough failing — unless, of course, you happen to be a politician, in which case forgetting the name of a party worker or a constituent is tantamount to ensuring the loss of his or her support.

There are other linguistic afflictions, too. One that the Western media have made us aware of is Tourette Syndrome, a nervous system disorder involving repetitive movements or unwanted sounds. Tourette’s Syndrome involves “tics”, uncontrollable repetitive movements or unwanted sounds, causing the sufferer to repeatedly blurt out obscene and offensive words. It’s an affliction that usually starts in childhood and the bad news is that it cannot be cured. Tourette’s sufferers are often accused of lalochezia, using profanity to gain emotional relief. But in truth, they cannot help it. Using offensive words is, for them, an ailment, not a linguistic choice.

Children can suffer from other types of language disorders too. The two most common are receptive language disorder, in which a child has trouble understanding words that she hears and reads, and expressive language disorder, when she has trouble speaking with others and expressing her thoughts and feelings. Both these, mercifully, can be treated, and often overcome.

But going back to adults, I suspect most of my readers will have had an experience of lethologica. You’re talking about someone or something, a situation or a problem, and you are just about to use the word to describe it — and then suddenly you hit a blank. But just when you have parted from the friend you were speaking to — that’s when the word pops up, miraculously and frustratingly. Or worse, just when you are falling asleep, the mind goes, “Eureka! That’s it! The word for not remembering the right word — it’s lethologica!”


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