Readers under the age of fifty may want to skip this blog post. You may not (yet) be suffering from diminounation, a word I just invented to mean the decreasing ability to remember a particular noun when you need it (feel free to forget this new word now; as it is a noun, you probably will anyway - words learned later in life, especially nouns, are apparently more easily forgotten).
Most of us have had this experience. In the middle of an erudite exposition or a simple conversation, the exact word we need is temporarily unretrievable. We may remember it before the conversation is over, or in the middle of the night, or we may describe around the word until out conversational companion, out of pity for our struggle, comes up with it. Whether the needed noun pops into our own head or is supplied by someone else, its appearance is a source of relief.
The forgetting of words that seems to occur more often as we age applies most of the time to nouns, including proper nouns like names. Much less often do we forget a verb or adjective. Thus, diminounation. Observe yourself – in the midst of a "darn, I can't think of the word!" episode, pause reflectively (this will make you look even weirder as you struggle for the forgotten word) and ask yourself, noun, verb or adjective? You will find that the culprit is, more often than not, a noun.
So, two questions. One, why do we forget words at all? And two, why do we more often forget nouns?
One. First of all, relax. Forgetting words is not a sign of dementia, or even necessarily of older age. The phenomenon of forgetting words occurs across ages and cultures. Even deaf users of sign language forget signs in mid-conversation – scientists have named this "tip of the finger" forgetting, parallel to "tip of the tongue." We do become more forgetful in general, though, as we age. Age-related forgetfulness is related to loss of brain cells and decreased blood flow to the brain. This is a normal part of aging (Why did I come into this room? Where did I put my keys?) and should not be a cause for concern. Forgetting words is part of a larger pattern of forgetfulness.
Other language problems may occur with age, including what scientists call "Off-Topic Verbosity" – OTV, the insertion of apparently extraneous topics into a narration. Have I told you about my two dogs?
Two. Okay, we forget words, perhaps more often as we age, though this has not been rigorously studied. But why nouns, more than adjectives or verbs? The answer may lie in the origins of spoken language – perhaps we begin to forget in the order in which human language ability developed. There are many theories as to where and when human speech developed. Grunts and gestures began to crystallize into words at some point, somewhere between 50,000 and two million years ago, depending on the theory to which one adheres. (In others words, we don't know.) But it is not difficult to see that a noun – "food," for instance, is the most useful, basic and definite kind of word, and that nouns almost certainly developed first. Nouns are the building blocks of language. Verbs may be second in importance, and adjectives, which are more nuanced, come third. In fact, infants learn words in this order, perhaps repeating the process humankind went through eons ago. Infants first learn nouns (linguists call this "early noun advantage"), then verbs, and finally adjectives.
An additional contributing factor is that in English, as in most languages, there are many more nouns than verbs, and when we search for a specific noun with our slowed-down, older brains, there is a larger data base from which to retrieve it.
Forgetting names is an interesting subset of the problem of forgetting nouns, and there are probably different reasons for it. We see and "know" someone because we recognize their face, but cannot for the life of us recall their name. Humans are biologically programmed to recognize the faces of our mates, enemies and family members (in other words, to recognize faces), but the names that go with faces are arbitrary. There is no reason for Bob to be Bob other than the fact that his parents named him that. Plus, names repeat themselves, attached to different faces. There are many Bobs. Names also do not have synonyms. We may be able to struggle our way through forgetting a noun by describing what it is we mean, but Bob is Bob, and when we forget his name there are no substitutes.
Yes, we can get depressed about our forgetfulness, echoing gloomy Macbeth when he says, "My dull brain was wrought with things forgotten." Or we can embrace our age with all its foibles, laughing at diminounation, and echo Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice, who wisely tells us, "With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come."
Till next time.