Struggling for words forgotten or out of reach—poem

Young woman in 1960s ski gear on a ski slope backed by fir trees and mountains
Me in the 1960s, thinking in French

Living with a foreign language is a bit like struggling for forgotten words in old age. Perfect fluency is not possible—but creativity helps.

Struggling for words

Back in the day
when I used French
at work and play
it made me feel all sparklyish inside

the twinkle and fright
of another tongue
I carried it off
with insecurity and delight

getting stuck at times
in a gross faux pas
committed by 
my puzzling tone of voice

syntax was the crash and curb
of another say, another way 
embedded in the verbs

my voice was in a foreign choir
floating just a little higher
missing the hooks that even dogs
and toddlers could acquire

Swiss French was a simple song
we sang in teams
but even dreaming
I was the one out of tune

In French I couldn’t 
get the joke
or make you laugh
or talk of deeper stuff
Now 80 years after I started to speak
even my dear familiar words 
play clumsy tricks 
they hide and seek

but I don’t care—they’re family 
and now I edge towards
an existential foreign place
for me and my personal words

~Rachel McAlpine 2022

About struggling for words forgotten or out of reach

I wrote this instant poem after recently hearing several people of 92, 93, 94 and 98 struggle with forgotten words. One said she knew the word but her lips would not say it. The others could not remember the word they wanted—it skittered away out of reach. Forgetting a word happens at any age, but it tends to increase in time. Some of my 90+ interviewees are distressed by this, some are relaxed, some find an approximation or synonym. On the other hand, two of these nonagenarians hesitated over a word or a fact only once in 60 minutes.

I’m reminded of my feelings when I lived in Geneva 60 years ago, using French at work and often when socialising. It was fun and satisfying—up to a limit. I hit that limit after a long weekend of using French for 24 hours a day including in my thoughts and dreams. My (Swiss) French was superficially fluent—but not deep.

Deep in my psyche I think in the Kiwi variety of English language. (This includes a good swathe of Maori.) Living in Switzerland and later in Japan, my own language and thus my very self sometimes felt lonely and almost out of reach.

Of course (as a poet) I see parallels between living in a foreign language and struggling for forgotten words in old age.

A poet’s solution to forgotten words

At almost 82, I see a loss of language looming. I want to flourish regardless. I also see a tempting solution.

I often notice myself deliberately and boldly inventing words like sparklyish. When I wrote sparklyish in the poem above, I knew the correct word. I considered it. But no, I prefer my own word so there it stays. And that’s great: this looks like a useful strategy for when I forget words in future. It also looks a bit like the way my Japanese creative writing students would use an English word that was unusual—and worked delightfully in their poems.

PS This is another instant poem, a quick first draft that at least catches a thought and will be improved or deleted when I’m in the mood.

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18 thoughts on “Struggling for words forgotten or out of reach—poem

  1. josaiawrites says:

    I appreciate your post very much ….Sometimes I think that creating a new word actually can give more meaning…. Having to think about the idea that you’re trying to get across without the easier comfort of the familiar word…..I sometimes delight in the words that a foreigner may come up with when trying to express an idea…. And the words are sometimes so much more accurate, colorful, and descriptive….

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You really understand what I’m getting at: that makes it all worthwhile!

      1. josaiawrites says:


  2. alison41 says:

    I’ve always been a very articulate person, and find my lost-word-searches so frustrating. However, I’ve learnt to abandon them instantly and usually the word, or at least, A word, floats in within about a minute. Drop of oil needed somewhere in my fraying synapses .

  3. judithhb says:

    Words, their meanings and their sounds have always been part of my life. As I get older, and of course I am already old, I do find that occasionally I forget a word particularly when I’m writing, and so I leave it and within a very short space of time the word I’m looking for comes back to mind. But sometimes the word is not a word in our language. I clearly remember when in Italy, when we were allowed to travel, I was so taken with a sight that without thinking I said in a very loud voice formidable. At which a gentleman came over and began to converse with me in French. It just said it all in one word, while I could think of nothing to equal it in English.

  4. I am often amazed at the worms that I say
    My brain loves to wobble and woopsie each day
    I know what I want and I will not delay
    To say what I mean and mean what I say

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      What a good opal you are, Potato!

      1. Splendiferous!

  5. Alan Ralph says:

    My mum (age 82) get this from time to time, she’s trying to think of a word but it’s not coming to her. I think it’s particularly common (pun intended) with words that we don’t use often in day-to-day conversation. Meanwhile, I’m finding that the dictionary and thesaurus are a lot more useful to me these days, as I find I’m not always familiar with the meaning or spelling of some words — a bit of a problem if you’re trying to become a professional copyeditor or proofreader!

    Of course, I also have the Uxbridge English Dictionary on my bookshelf, compiled from words made up over the years by panellists on the long-running ‘antidote to panel games’ radio show “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue”. 🙂 I’ve loved that show for years, so glad it carried on after the passing of original host Humphrey Lyttleton.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I like the sound of the Uxbridge English Dictionary and could surely have contributed, had They but asked me

  6. Ally Bean says:

    Something profound in this poem and your explanation of your earlier life. I forget words, and never know if I should worry or just go with it. Perhaps as we age the nuances of language are no longer needed?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Or perhaps we become more open and free to find other ways to say things? And care less about following conventions, even linguistic ones? I really do not know, but I do know that “old age has many faces” and we may have more choices than we had realised. I will soon find out 🙂

  7. Lesley Maclean says:

    Hi there Rachel! Perfect synchronicitous (why not) post you have there. I’ve been trying and failing to write something that I had a plan to write, and in the end got more interested in the process of slipping in between such constructions as proper use of words and in my case, the need to have words for what I was exploring at all. Instead of a written piece I had several conversations and am currently playing with rusted iron on fabric. The words wanted to be printed patterns of another sort. Anyway yay for following new patterns as life inches is too sometimes

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      What a joy to dip into your marvellious mind, Lesley. Thank you for this moment, especially the rusty iron and your last six words. A decorative flourish on the creative process is autocorrect gone amok.

  8. I enjoyed your poem and can only imagine speaking a foreign language. Daughter Lise is fluent in English, French, German, Farsi, and Danish. She would instantly understand sparklyish.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I wonder!

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I have read that it takes longer for us to retrieve words because our minds are stocked to the brim with words, images,events, etc. It therefore takes longer to find the right one. I like this explanation because it salutes the accumulation rather than despairs at the difficulty of finding the right word.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says: