WordFinder by YourDictionary

Lethologica: Interesting Facts & How to Prevent It

lethologica try to remember name capybara

Adapted from Getty Images

What is that animal called that looks like a giant guinea pig again? Canberra? Caffemira? If you’ve got the answer right at the tip of the tongue, then you’re experiencing lethologica. It’s when you can’t seem to remember a word, even though you’re pretty sure you know it. Let’s look a little deeper into the tip of the tongue phenomenon and how you might overcome it.

For the record, the animal you’re looking for is the capybara. It’s the world’s largest rodent; adults weigh as much as 150 pounds and measure about four feet long. They’re native to South America

Tip of the Tongue Phenomenon

Lethologica, sometimes mistyped or misremembered as “lethogica,” can happen just about anywhere. It’s a frequent part of everyday life. If you’ve ever struggled to solve a crossword puzzle, you’ve probably experienced the tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon. You think you know the answer to a crossword clue, but you just can’t remember it. 

This is quite distinct from not knowing the answer at all. You feel like you remember at least some of it, or you think you’ll come up with the answer very soon. It’s right there

Psychologist Carl Jung popularized the term “lethologica” starting around 1913. In 1915, Dorland's American Illustrated Medical Dictionary defined lethologica as an “inability to remember the proper word.”

Lethologica vs. Lethonomia

Lethologica and lethonomia are both examples of the tip of the tongue phenomenon. But, they’re not exactly the same thing. Lethologica is the inability to remember the right word. Lethonomia, by contrast, is the inability to remember the right name. Both terms derive from the river Lethe in Greek mythology. People who drank from the “river of unmindfulness” in Hades forgot everything. Lethologica adds in “logos” (meaning “word”) whereas lethonomia adds in “nom” (meaning “name”). 

So, if you can’t remember the name of a giant South American rodent (but think you can or should), that’s lethologica. If you can’t remember the name of the little rodent chef in Ratatouille (but think you can or should), that’s lethonomia. His name is Remy, in case you were wondering. 

Lethologica Stats and Facts

Studies conducted on the TOT phenomenon have revealed some interesting facts. Here are a few key highlights.

  • Universal Experience: Lethologica is not at all unique to English. Speakers of many languages describe a similar experience. 

  • Tip of the Tongue Metaphor: Not only is the experience common across cultures, but so is the “tongue” metaphor. About 90 percent of speakers of different languages use a “tongue” metaphor to describe lethologica.

  • American Sign Language Too: American Sign Language (ASL) doesn’t appear to use a “tongue” metaphor. Instead, it has an expression that means “on the tip of the fingers.” ASL users say they know a sign, but can’t retrieve it.

  • A Frequent Occurrence: Younger adults experience tip of the tongue about once a week. For older adults, this increases to about once a day. By contrast, deja vu may only happen once or twice in a lifetime. 

  • Partial Recall: Even if you can’t remember exactly the right word, you may remember some aspects of it. You might remember the starting sound or the number of syllables, for example. If you speak more than one language, you might remember the term in one language but not the other

  • Anomic Aphasia: Experiencing the occasional tip of the tongue is not a cause for alarm in and of itself. When it’s frequent enough to interfere with daily life, though, it can become a medical condition called anomic aphasia. A head injury or other brain damage may be the root cause.  

Tips to Overcome Tip of the Tongue

Remember that it’s spelled “lethologica” and not “lethogica,” for starters. Autocorrect and autocomplete will usually rescue you from that typo (or misremembering). As you work to prevent or overcome the tip of the tongue experience, keep these tips and tricks in mind.

  • Don’t Dwell on It: Ruminating on the word you can’t remember might actually make it harder for you to remember it next time. If you can’t look it up or solve it right away, it may be better to move on to something else.

  • Stress Less: Studies suggest that stress is a factor that may increase how frequently you experience lethologica. You’re less likely to experience TOT if you’re less stressed.

  • Play Crossword Puzzles: It’s not so much about remembering specific words. Rather, it’s more about making stronger connections between words you already know. As you play more crossword puzzles, you’ll see common crossword answers. This will help you form more of an interconnected web of knowledge in your head.   

  • Link Words With Stories: You’ll have a much easier time remembering words that are part of a bigger pattern. Your memory is associative in nature. Tie words together with meaningful stories, linking them to other important pieces of information.

  • Train Your Brain: Treat your brain like any other muscle in your body. It needs exercise too! A fit and flexible brain is better at remembering things too. There are tons of fun word games to boost your brainpower. Playing Scrabble regularly can work wonders. 

Level Up Your Word Knowledge (and Recall)

If you want to avoid experiencing the tip of the tongue phenomenon, you’ve got to start with a strong vocabulary. After all, you’ll never remember a word if you don’t really know it in the first place. Minimize your instances of lethologica by actively “playing” with words each day. Do you know how word cheat apps can help? It turns out we have one of those too.  

Michael Kwan is a professional writer and editor with over 14 years of experience. Fueled by caffeine and WiFi, he's no stranger to word games and dad jokes.

See more popular articles