Saturday, August 11, 2012

A mental cul-de-sac

All my life I've suffered a mental block against the word cul-de-sac, a useful word that trips satisfyingly off the tongue, but I can't call it up without first running higglety-pigglety through a host of unrelated words and phrases: tete a tete, coup d'etat, s'il vous plait, rue morgue--and then, suddenly, my reluctant mind offers up the right word: cul-de-sac. Of course.

Fortunately, cul-de-sac doesn't come up often in casual conversation, but lately I notice that the cul-de-sac effect is spreading. It happens just about every day: I know the word I want but my brain refuses to cough it up on demand. Maybe this is characteristic of the postmenopausal aging brain or maybe it's a result of all that nasty chemotherapy, but it's a problem--and it's getting worse.

It's easy enough to handle the problem in writing: I simply skip the missing word or insert clues in parentheses (three-syllable word starting with L that means "on the threshold") and continue writing, and before I'm halfway down the page, WHOOMP there it is in flashing neon in front of my eyeballs: liminal! I'm a whizz at the Washington Post's Cricklers word game (single-digit handicap!) only because I can skip a word that's hiding in some mental cul-de-sac, hand the retrieval task over to my subconscious, and wait for the right word to pop into place. Works every time--as long as I'm willing to move on and wait.

It's not so easy, however, when I'm speaking. I don't know how many times lately I've radically revised a sentence halfway through because I couldn't wait around for a key term to come out of hiding, and I can't just stand there with my mouth open and leave a hole in the sentence. I picture myself standing in front of my postcolonial literature class this fall and saying, "What's the word we use to describe a person standing on the threshold?" Fine, as long as some student remembers liminal, but what if I'm the only one in the room who knows the word I'm seeking? "Okay, class, I'm thinking of a word--who can guess it?" Maybe no one--not even me.

I dread the day when all the words I need go circling 'round some inaccessible mental cul-de-sac and I'm left standing with my mouth open but nothing to say. When words fail, what's left?      

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