The Good Word

Rohds. Rowds. Row-ads? Rhowds???

Oh, wait, roads. The weird agonies and little-known science of wordnesia.

Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

One hour and seven minutes into the decidedly hit-or-miss 1996 comedy Black Sheep, the wiseass sidekick character played by David Spade finds himself at an unusually pronounced loss for words. While riding in a car driven by Chris Farley’s character, he glances at a fold-up map and realizes he somehow has become unfamiliar with the name for paved driving surfaces. “Robes? Rouges? Rudes?” Nothing seems right. Even when informed by Farley that the word he’s looking for is roads, Spade’s character continues to struggle: “Rowds. Row-ads.” By this point, he’s become transfixed. “That’s a total weird word,” he says, “isn’t it?”

Now, it’s perhaps necessary to mention that, in the context of the film, Spade’s character is high off nitrous oxide that has leaked from the car’s engine boosters. But never mind that. Row-ad-type word wig outs similar to the one portrayed in that movie are things that actually happen, in real life, to people with full and total control over their mental capacities. These wordnesias sneak up on us at odd times when we’re writing or reading text.

Here’s how they work: Every now and again, for no good or apparent reason, you peer at a standard, uncomplicated word in a section of text and, well, go all row-ads on it. If you’re typing, that means inexplicably blanking on how to spell something easy like cake or design. The reading version of wordnesia occurs when a common, correctly spelled word either seems as though it can’t possibly be spelled correctly, or like it’s some bizarre combination of letters you’ve never before seen—a grouping that, in some cases, you can’t even imagine being the proper way to compose the relevant term.

For instance, the other day I was composing an email to a friend, and I needed to use the word project. No problem, right? I’d venture to guess that during the course of my life I’ve read and written that word thousands of times—perhaps tens of thousands. It’s not a rare word by any stretch. I promise that I know how to spell it. And yet, there I was, flummoxed. Praject looked ridiculous. Prawject? No, that couldn’t be it. Maybe it was Pragect? Each new option was more absurd than the last. And, of course, I now fully realize the not-even-close-at-all nature of every one of those bizarrely spelled offerings. But at the time I was in a full-on wordnesiac state. I had hit on the proper spelling at one point in the process, but that version looked just as crazy as the others—if not crazier. On one of my attempts, I think I even threw a K into the mix. It was bad.  

This descent into wordnesia occurred over the course of perhaps 10 or 15 seconds. Then I quit trying. I swallowed my pride and Googled praject. (It’s not your finest hour when you’re Googling praject, by the way. After you run that search, the words “Did you mean” appear in bright red type at the top of the results page, followed by the word project in a boldface “you’re an idiot” shade of blue.) Within a second of seeing the correct spelling, project had become familiar again—so familiar, in fact, that everything about what had just happened seemed sad and embarrassing. Naturally, my first inclination was to tell a bunch of people about said embarrassing thing. And what I discovered in so doing helped me to feel less dumb.  

Every friend, colleague, and acquaintance that I mentioned wordnesia to had experienced the phenomenon at one point or another. Then I spoke to a bunch of really smart people who study language and the brain for a living. Same deal. So it turns out that I’m not the only person freaking himself out by occasionally not being able to call up or recognize the spelling of an extremely simple word when needed.

“This definitely happens to me,” says Kyle Mahowald, a linguist working toward his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department. “And for me, I’ve noticed it happens more when writing than when reading.” According to Baylor University psychology and neuroscience professor Charles A. Weaver III, it’s likely that wordnesia happens to everyone. He referred to the phenomenon as representing “temporary glitches” that may be impossible to avoid completely, considering the complexities of human brain functioning as it relates to reading and writing.  

So what is going on here?

Before digging in, it’s important to clarify exactly what we’re talking about when we discuss wordnesia. This is not that thing where you constantly forget how to spell parsimonious, or consistently mix up compliment and complement. Getting those words right can be hard. This is something different—something much more strange. It’s looking at an easy word like belt, or flower, or horse, being convinced it’s flat-out wrong, and then muttering to yourself, “What sort of idiot would spell horse in such a crazy way?” Or it’s trying to write out couch, taking five shots at it before having to pull out a dictionary, and then not even being able to look it up because you are attempting to spell couch with a K at the front and a freaking W in the middle.

Recall that time a few months ago when shoe seemed like a word from another planet. Harken back to the text message that included the word radio … and totally blew your mind, or that afternoon when you couldn’t stop thinking about how crazy it is that pants is something we actually write. Those are classic wordnesiac moments.

Russell Epstein, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies memory and perception, posits that these experiences may be linked to concepts described by psychologist William James in his 1890 masterwork The Principles of Psychology. James contended that our conscious experiences are made up of components he referred to as the nucleus and the fringe. The nucleus consists of sensory information that we discern easily and have no trouble perceiving (the individual letters that make up words, for instance) while the fringe entails more nebulous experiences or responses that help inform fully developed thoughts. Fringe-type sensations involving familiarity, significance, and correctness would appear to be critical in connecting all the dots when reading and writing, but in some instances the signals can get crossed. Sometimes, as Epstein says, “the fringe provides a sense of ‘wrongness’ when it should be providing a sense of ‘rightness.’ ”   

Because no one has figured out how to reliably elicit these specific misfire scenarios in a lab, not much is known about what causes wordnesia, or what precisely is going on at a neurological level when it occurs. But there do seem to be some interesting takeaways from these language lapses that might help us at least partly understand them. For starters, it would appear that wordnesiac experiences can sometimes result from a heightened focus on certain words as we are reading or writing them.     

“This seems to happen more when you’re thinking specifically about the word, and you lose your ability to process the word as a whole unit,” says Mahowald. “You are instead getting fixated on the string of letters that make up the word.”

Weaver, who specializes in an array of topics relating to memory, notes that when we’re reading at a good clip, and taking in lots of information, it’s almost like we’re on autopilot. Often it’s when we slow things down and take a step back that wordnesia-type glitches can occur. “When you’re reading, what you’ve got is a very practiced part of the brain that responds automatically,” he says. “I mean, when is the last time you looked at colonel and realized it was spelled funny? The automatic parts of reading take over. My guess, in the phenomenon you’re talking about, is that, very briefly, the automatic parts hit a speed bump and go, ‘that can’t be right.’ And those automatic tasks, when you disrupt them at all—when you think, ‘am I breathing on my backswing,’ or when you think, ‘should I push the clutch with my left foot’—anytime that you engage conscious monitoring of those parts that ought to be automatic, you get a hiccup.”

The widely studied concept of semantic satiation, the tendency for words to lose their meaning and aura of correctness when repeated over and over again, would appear to lend further support to the notion that how we come at a particular word is key to whether there’s a chance we may hit a speed bump in processing it. (Of course, wordnesia doesn’t require lots and lots of repetition. It just takes one weird sighting.) And Epstein notes that other psychological phenomena may also shed some light on wordnesia. For instance, experiences such as jamais vu (the opposite of déjà vu, wherein you see something familiar, and yet get an odd feeling that you’ve never seen it before or cannot fully recognize it) and the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (knowing that you know the right word to use in a given situation but not being able to remember and locate it when needed) would appear to be related to that thing where we suddenly have no clue how to spell sign.

In each case, Epstein says, there seems to be a nucleus-fringe disconnect. “All these phenomena,” he notes, “do suggest some sort of separation between things that are in the perceptual center of our experience and these other more nebulous experiences that tend to come along with them—things like a sense of familiarity, or a sense that this word is appropriate, or that this is the correct spelling.”

The good news is that these occasional, unexpected glitches on the language front tend not to last very long for most people. And they don’t seem to signify anything more than the fact that the human brain isn’t perfect. Sometimes, it turns out, we try to spell project with an A instead of an O, and then attempt to include a weird K before the T at the end. That’s just the way it goes when communicating via the written word every day of our lives. Even for those among us who tend to experience nearly no setbacks in reading or writing, every once in a while speed bumps will appear on the road. And that reminds me … you know what: Don’t think too much about this, or let it mess you up the next time you have to write it out, but roads really is a totally weird word.

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