What is the Name for the Thing You Can’t Remember?

I have never been one to quote movie lines. To be honest, I have a hard time remembering most details of movies after I see them, much less the lines the actors said. A writing teacher once told me my lack of recall about the wider movie had something to do with the way I was focusing on the emotions of the characters. But that’s just one more thing I can’t remember the details of.

There is one movie I do remember the lines of – the oft-quoted Napoleon Dynamite. Years after watching, I find myself quoting this odd classic. Yet, like everyone else, I have trouble remembering even the simplest details at times.

For example, this morning I woke too early. As I was trying to coax myself back to sleep going through the alphabet and naming corresponding dog breeds (A: Affenpinscher, B: Border Collie, C: Chihuahua) I got to G and couldn’t remember the full name of the German dog.

As the minutes ticked on, I could remember that my aunt and uncle always had this type of dog. I remembered the one I saw on my walk yesterday. I remembered they were often chosen to be police dogs, but I couldn’t remember what they were called.


I knew the name was two parts, so I thought of other common dog identifiers: terrier, retriever, setter, but I knew none were right. I liked the sound of German Hound, though.

I tried to think about other things so my brain could come up with the name without thinking about it. I remembered the beach we visited in Costa Rica a few months ago, but instead of seeing the placid blue waters or feeling the tropical breezes, I saw the stray dogs running on the hot sand. None of them helped me identify that full name of that German dog.

By now, I knew I wasn’t going to get back to sleep so I figured I may as well get up and look. But I remembered a study about how we are becoming too reliant on our phones. It turns out if we think a computer will store information for us, we won’t even bother to remember it. So, instead of letting my smartphone do the work for me, and risk never being able to remember the German dog, I decided to find out what was going on in my brain. That’s when I was surprised to find Napolean Dynamite.

It turns out what was going on my brain was called T-O-T-S. Not as in the line I can clearly repeat and annoy others with, “You gonna eat those tots?” from that movie, but Tip-of-the-Tongue-Syndrome. I would have thought science would have come up with a better name, but that’s what we have. At least in English. In French, it’s much better of course: “presque vu”, which means almost seen. Alt

Basically what happens is that your brain takes a detour instead of following the paths it usually follows to help you recall things. Specifically, the connection that normally takes place between the meaning of something (dog) and the sound (German whatever the last part is) don’t completely activate and you can’t think of the word. There’s an interesting video here if you want to watch the whole process.

But as you already know, once I stopped digging for the answer it came for me. As I was looking down on my phone digging into the psychology of forgetting, a bird flew overhead and dropped the word I needed. Shepherd.

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