What Is the Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon?

(retrorocket/Getty Images)

In psycholinguistics, the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is that feeling that a name, word, or phrase—though momentarily unrecallable—is known and will soon be recalled.

According to linguist George Yule, the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon mainly occurs with uncommon words and names. "[S]peakers generally have an accurate phonological outline of the word, can get the initial sound correct and mostly know the number of syllables in the word" (The Study of Language, 2014).

Examples and Observations:

  • "What's the name of that stuff I wanted to tell your mother to use?"
    "Wait a second. I know."
    "It's on the tip of my tongue," she said.
    "Wait a second. I know."
    "You know the stuff I mean."
    "The sleep stuff or the indigestion?"
    "It's on the tip of my tongue."
    "Wait a second. Wait a second. I know."
    (Don DeLillo, Underworld. Scribner, 1997)
  • "You know, the actor guy! Oh, what is his name? See, the thing is, the thing is, the thing is that when I say his name, you'll go, 'Yes! The actor guy, love him, adore him . . ..' But I can't think of his name. It's on the tip of my tongue. You know who I mean. He's got the hair, the eyes, a bit of a nose, and a mouth, and it's all held together with, like, a face!" (Frank Woodley, The Adventures of Lano & Woodley, 1997)
  • "The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (henceforth, TOT) straddles the line between what we think of as memory and what we think of as language, two closely related cognitive domains that have been studied somewhat independently of each other. . . . The implications of whether TOT is memory-related or language-related has different implications. Consider the following example. "Political pundits used to make fun of former President George H. Bush because of his frequent word-finding failures. Despite his obvious depth of knowledge and expertise, his speech was sometimes characterized by pauses suggesting a failure to recall a known word. His deficit was usually attributed to absent-mindedness, rather than a lack of clear thinking. In other words, it was dismissed as a language-production failure, not a more consequential memory failure. His son, President George W. Bush, suffers from a similar affliction. However, the son's speech errors (e.g., 'Kosovarians,' 'subliminable') are often interpreted as a lack of knowledge, and therefore, a learning deficit; a more consequential one for a president." (Bennett L. Schwartz, Tip-of-the-Tongue States: Phenomenology, Mechanism, and Lexical Retrieval. Routledge, 2002)
  • "The TOT state demonstrates that it is possible to hold the meaning of a word in one's mind without necessarily being able to retrieve its form. This has suggested to commentators that a lexical entry falls into two distinct parts, one relating to form and one to meaning, and that one may be accessed without the other. In assembling speech, we first identify a given word by some kind of abstract meaning code and only later insert its actual phonological form into the utterance we are planning." (John Field, Psycholinguistics: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2004)

    Also Known As: TOT

    Also see: