Never mind the words you forget: you’re learning new words every day


This morning I was a tad shocked when not one but two words eluded me. First I failed to retrieve eclipse, then half an hour later, arnica escaped my tongue. Total eclipse of the brain! Quick, fetch the arnica!

Then common sense prevailed. OK, these are not unusual words … but on the other hand, I rarely use them.

I was reading the newspaper when it struck me that over 77 years I’ve never stopped learning new words (and nor have you, at whatever age). Deployment, I read, ordnance: not words I learned at my father’s knee, I assure you. Superfoodsmitochondria, microbeads, urban runoff, nutrient pollution. Bitcoin, geopolitical, cryptocurrency, alpha-numeric codes… The newspaper every day is peppered with words that did not exist in 1940, words that we now use without a second thought.

New words: space invaders that keep us young

By lunch time I’d used dozens of neologisms and technical terms without blinking. The sort of words we learn when they become necessary or common. I had done a kettlebell superset workout and 100 incline push ups, among other torturesI’d listened to a podcast with my decaff flat white. I’d enquired about a markdown app for my iPad Pro that sync nicely with the WordPress blogging platform, and toyed with some source code. I had directed a body corp member to section 4 of the Unit Titles Act.

You too are a word-learning machine

Take heart! Unless you live solo in a tech-free ice cave, you cannot help but learn new words every day. “I can’t stand that word blog,” one of my friends said the other day — OK, but you just used it, I thought.

Next time you forget a word, don’t catastrophize. It’s not automatically a sign of anomic aphasia or even mild cognitive impairment, let alone Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s more likely just a sign that your glorious brain is chock-a-block full of words, and some old friends are being pushed to the back of the closet by these brash (but interesting) newcomers.

PS Writing others into life

Several readers have told me that this post was hugely reassuring to them. It reframes a fear into pride. I’m glad if by writing today, I can help others to perceive that their verbal is very much alive.

10 thoughts on “Never mind the words you forget: you’re learning new words every day

  1. Sometimes I think I’ve rented an off-site storage unit for words. It’s take a bit to get them back!

    1. Thanks for that crazy idea. Of course, my word storage unit is out by the airport!

  2. Val says:

    Unfortunately, in my case, it’s a case of an adverse reaction to a prescribed drug years ago – I forgot a lot of my vocabulary and still don’t have it all back. I also don’t have the ability to retain new words I learn… but I do spend a lot of time trying to relearn them! 🙂

    1. That must have been shattering. But how splendidly you have relearned those precious words–what an achievement. I’m lost in admiration, Val.

  3. That is such a positive (and well-written) take on the mild cognitive impairment we nearly all get when we age. Yes, we forget words (which come back two hours later) but wow, I totally get what you’re saying, we are also learning new words all the time – Mailchimp, Fitbit, Brexit, algorithms, alt-right, cyberwarfare etc, etc. Thanks for this – a good news story

    1. Yes, once you become aware of the new words they’re everywhere.

  4. joared says:

    Many years ago in my youth I actually believed words were a fixed number in the dictionay — some of them just changed form as did language through the generations. I was quite surprised to learn new words could come into being, that some slang terms could actually become accepted words, and existing words could acquire new meanings. Words are alive! So many decades later I was exploring the many ways our brains file away those words — how we can access them in different ways — especially those words that don’t readily come to mind due to whatever the neurological changes for whatever the reasons.

  5. Many many people (that’s my biggest number) retain your childhood misconception to the end of their days. (You will find them correcting people’s usage and grammar on the internet.) Whatever makes them happy! But we have discovered the truth. As Andrew Reynolds says in Andrew’s View of the Week, “The truth is out there. So what are you doing here?!?”

  6. Aunt Beulah says:

    I love this. Each morning immediately after getting up my husband and I sit together for thirty to forty-five minutes sipping coffee, talking, watching a news show on TV. Invariably, someone on the show will use either a word we think is used or pronounced incorrectly or one we don’t know. So, smart phone at the ready, my husband looks up the word in question and we talk about what we’ve learned. So we’re living proof of what you so skillfully wrote about.

    1. I adore your picture of word-learning in action — for many reasons. Thank you for sharing this.

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