Trouble retrieving words? You are not alone

The other evening, five of us were having a hilarious conversation over pizza. All in our 70s or 80s. We were having no trouble retrieving words, indeed, we were unstoppable. Then someone used the word macerate, someone else asked what it meant, we agreed on the meaning and all was well.

Then I said something that caused our happy talk to stop dead.

“But macerate is not the most common word for soaking a food in a liquid before cooking,” says Madam Smarty-pants. “There’s another word. You know it, I know it. Also begins with an M. Also has three syllables I think…”

Silence. Long silence. Very long silence. Disbelief. Discreet panic attacks. Horror. Silence.

We all knew the word. We had all used it many times. But none of us could retrieve it.

Drawing of five worried adults sitting together. Empty thought bubbles. Text: "What's that word?"

Finally, after what felt like seven hours, one of us struck gold, retrieving the elusive word from the murky depths of his mind.


The next day I recounted this funny little episode to a young friend (in her sixties). She could not remember the word either. To mitigate (look! 3-syllables, begins with M!) the shock I said,

“To be fair, I don’t think any of us has used that work since the 80s.”

“I marinated something yesterday,” she said.

Now I’m thinking I don’t see the word “marinate” in modern recipes. I’m thinking they’re more likely to say, “soak the [ingredients] in the [liquid] for 2 hours” or “pour the [liquid] over the [ingredients] and refrigerate” or “let the mixture stand overnight.”

Is that true, though? I have no idea. But rest assured, if you have trouble retrieving words, words you know perfectly well, you are not alone. You just need to masticate and macerate your thoughts a little longer, and the words you seek will come to you.

24 thoughts on “Trouble retrieving words? You are not alone

  1. josaiawrites says:

    I’ll need to masticate on that for a while and let it marinate in my brain….

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Sounds like a good recipe to me.

  2. Sadje says:

    Yup, they do come back but at most unexpected moments. πŸ˜ƒπŸ˜‚

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And you just can’t help shouting out the word in triumph!

      1. Sadje says:


  3. Nyla Carroll says:

    Excellent food for thought whilst reading with breakfast!

  4. cedar51 says:

    a couple of weeks ago on a blog comment – I couldn’t even find the word I wanted via spell check, because the “wrong word was spelt right” – in the end I posted “he looks very photographic” to which the blog owner replied “photogenic” – aha that’s the word I wanted…

    I’ve never been much good at “finding and/or meaning of a word” – I realised a decade ago it was because of my schooling in the primary and for that matter secondary years. I’ve got by on very simple words, when possibly one word like “marinade” would have fixed all writing…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You just keep on doing you: your vocab is just fine! ( For years I taught people how to write clearly, and familiar, simple words are part of the magic mix.)

  5. John and I search for words all the time, and they usually surface within 24 hours. Names can take two days. We take shortcuts now. It’s acceptable for the speaker to wave a hand and say, “You know what I mean.” And usually we do.

    I see the word “marinade” all the time. Perhaps I should check the publication dates of all my cookbooks. I’ve had most of them for 45 years or so.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Haha to both these thoughts!

  6. Nemorino says:

    I find it helps not to think about it too hard or too directly. Think past it, just off to the right, is how it seems to me. I often say “I’ll recall it in a minute” and then I often do.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Great tips! Eyes right plus positive thinking.

  7. Mr. Wapojif says:

    Perhaps you were after marine biology? That’s the type of thing I’d like to macerate.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Oh but that is self-macerating, surely?

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Between my husband and me we can usually come up with a word if given 24 hours. As for names, they usually come up at odd times, such as when we are about to fall asleep or the first thing in the morning. Of course by then we have no idea why we were trying to remember the word or the name!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I am smiling here. It surely helps to have a collaborator to share the event.

  9. Cathy Cade says:

    Welcome to my world! It’s one of the reasons I started writing in retirement (seriously). And it isn’t the fancy words that I grope for; it’s often everyday terms.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Cathy, does writing help? And if so, how? I’d love to know your experience in this.

      1. Cathy Cade says:

        I think it does seem to have helped. The problem hasn’t gone away – and since lockdown, I haven’t seen too many people to have conversations with and experience the problem. When writing, I try my best to dredge up the word I want before I resort to thesauruses. It’s difficult to measure, but I think I’m using the thesauruses less.

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        This is fascinating. And so encouraging. It makes sense…

  10. candidkay says:

    You’re not alone! I know the feeling all too well:). Particularly hard for us writers . . .

  11. lynmacgtn says:

    I find it is usually the nouns that just won’t come to mind.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s interesting. They have a mind of their own?

%d bloggers like this: