Why do we forget certain words?

Why do we forget certain words?

Have you ever tried to unsuccessfully retrieve a word from the tip of your tongue?

Most of us have experienced it - the usually simple process of verbalising a turn of phrase is somehow thwarted by an annoying mental block. When this happens, often we turn to a glossary of alternatives to fill the temporary void. Doodad, thingamabob, thingamajig, whatsit - you've probably used one before, or made up your own version on the spot, to stall for time as you try to fill the void.

The sheer number of these fill-ins highlights a human proclivity for forgetting the names of things and people, and also highlights the frequency of those 'on the tip of my tongue' experiences. Lethologica is the technical term for this type of forgetting.

Like many other English terms associated with the mind, lethologica is a modern word derived from classical Greek. In this case, the Greek words are lethe (forgetfulness) and logos (word). In Greek mythology, Lethe was also one of the five rivers of the underworld where the souls of the dead drank to forget all earthly memories.

The coinage of this term is popularly attributed to psychologist Carl Jung in the early 20th Century, but the earliest clear record is in the 1915 edition of Dorland's American Illustrated Medical Dictionary, where lethologica is defined as the 'inability to remember the proper word'.

Whatever the precise origin of the coinage, the importance of memory and forgetting in Jung's studies of the unconscious, and in Greek mythology, is echoed in our modern understanding of how memory works in the brain.

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