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This happens to me frequently. I'll say, "Oh you know that guy... uhh... I can't remember his name. But he starts with a 'Z'." You can remember part of the word but not the whole word.

Is there a term for this situation? What causes it?

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"What's going on there" is a pretty complex (and controversial) issue, so I refrained from answering that completely; if you want to know more I'd suggest asking more, specific questions about the phenomenon :) –  Ben Brocka Mar 31 '12 at 22:08
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Brainfart. Although it's informal, I did hear someone using it in your case. –  Roronoa Zoro Apr 2 '12 at 13:35
    
Ha, yeah, I half expected the answer to be, "Sorry dude, you're brain damaged! Surf's up!" –  yep Apr 3 '12 at 2:32
    
I can't remember the two word term, only the first letters! TY. Oh, there it is; THANK YOU! –  user2957 Apr 28 '13 at 15:56

2 Answers 2

up vote 19 down vote accepted

This is called the Tip of the Tongue phenomenon.

People in a tip-of-the-tongue state can often recall one or more features of the target word, such as the first letter, its syllabic stress, and words similar in sound and/or meaning. Individuals report a feeling of being seized by the state, feeling something like mild anguish while searching for the word, and a sense of relief when the word is found.

It's a very common phenomenon, and it presents itself in several similar forms, as the Wikipedia description notes. Remembering just the first letter is a common form but not the only cue.

There are a couple of suggested causes, but generally the problem is failure to completely retrieve information you "know" is in fact there. The Wikipedia article has some information on the general theories.

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Great answer. This is the foundational paper for the topic in the cognitive psychology literature: Brown, R. & McNeill, D. (1966). The "tip of the tongue" phenomenon. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 325-337. –  Andy DeSoto Apr 1 '12 at 1:28

Anomic aphasia, also known as dysnomia, nominal aphasia, and amnesic aphasia; is a severe problem with recalling words or names. Wikipedia is a good source of info on the subject. Severe cases sometimes are traced back to a blow and subsequent damage to the left side of the brain.

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Hi, and welcome to the site! Your answer is certainly not bad, but I think the OP was asking about an issue in healthy individuals. –  Mien May 14 '13 at 19:55
    
Thank you User3006. I have had this issue since my teen years. I find it extremely frustrating. It is only when I let go and don't pressure myself to find it that 'miraculously' the word I'm looking for, or something that will trigger the memory, appears. It's almost like something up there is broken. –  SheilaC Dec 2 '13 at 5:56

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