Usually the answer turned out to be Groucho Marx, Ginger Rogers or The Pickle Barrel.
When my parents asked each other a question, that is. And how my sister and I would laugh! They always seemed to go off on such bizarre tangents: “Who’s that actress who was in that movie we saw with Joe and Ethel that Ethel couldn’t stand, but maybe that’s because she had some bad fish at that restaurant with the rye bread beforehand?”
Oh, yeah. It seemed so funny. Till I started doing it.
Experts call it the “tip-of-thetongue phenomenon” and actually have observed it in children as young as 6. But at that age, one little “I dropped my whatchamacallit … uh, crayon!” doesn’t seem to drive anyone crazy. The kids can just shroud it off.
Wait, not shroud. Smug? Slug? What’s that word for when you move your shoulders up to your ears and look like Woody Allen? You know what I mean!
Or maybe you don’t. The other day, The New York Times wrote an article about tip-of-the-tongue troubles and pointed out that they are catching. Science writer Natalie Angier called it “infectious amnesia.” It’s what happens when you start groping for a word and suddenly your friend, who knew exactly the word you were looking for a second ago, starts blanking on it, too.
“What’s that summer resort movie with the guy in the tight pants and the ugly duckling actress who had the nose job afterward?”
Oh, my gosh, that’s so simple! It’s —
It’s the one in which her on-screen dad is the “Law & Order” guy. And her real-life dad was in “Cabaret,” right?
The reason this amnesia is catching is that our brains were built to help us survive harrowing circumstances, not trivia contests. (Though sometimes those are one and the same.) When we’re anxious, our fight-or-flight control center assumes it’s because our very survival is at stake and shuts down any non-necessary functions, such as remembering Jerry Orbach played Jennifer Grey’s father in “Dirty Dancing.” And her real-life father is Joel Grey. (And didn’t she do a TV show about being an actress who had a nose job, but it was canceled? And speaking of Grey, the African Grey parrot …)
In other words: It shuts up and concentrates on remembering how to run. Fast. Meantime our anxiety infects our friends (who, if we were about to die, probably would be running with us). And pretty soon, none of us can remember a single proper noun until it is 3 a.m. and we sit up and shout: “Patrick Swayze! He’s the one in the tight pants!”
And we’d be waking up our significant others with that outburst if they weren’t already wide-awake going, “The Cheesecake Factory!”
We can despair about this wacky stage of life or embrace it. In “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now,” I embrace it. Yes, my co-author and I just wrote the world’s first trivia quiz book with all the questions posed the way we’re starting to talk. (“Who’s the one who’s not Matt Damon?” “What’s that musical with the dancing street gangs?” “Who’s the boxer who became a grill?”)
The publisher did not give us a dedication page, but if it had, I’d have dedicated it to those two very special people. You know. The guy with the mustache who always was cracking jokes and the beautiful lady.
Not Groucho and Ginger. Max and Ribsie. My parents.
Lenore Skenazy is a columnist
at Advertising Age.
She is the founder of
FreeRangeKids.com and the
author of the book “Free-
Range Kids: Giving Our
Children the Freedom We
Had Without Going Nuts
©2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.