The agonizing mental word searches known as tip-of-the-tongues (TOTs) are relatively rare—in part because we are so skilled at talking ourselves out of them: If disenfranchise isn’t coming to mind, why not just say deprive of the vote? Nonetheless, psychologists estimate that most people experience the phenomenon on a weekly basis (and when tested in a laboratory, on about 10 to 20 percent of rare words). Its influence on psychological theories of speech production, however, is outsized. TOTs put the generally hidden process of word retrieval on full display. They demonstrate our wide range of knowledge about words—what they mean, how they look and sound, when they’re used, and (in some languages) their grammatical gender—without it all being available to us at once.
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