Wednesday March 17, 2004

Word Moment

I've been hearing and using all the these words my whole life. Most of them I've just jammed into my mental lexicon without stopping to think about them. Whole phrases have gone in one ear and stuck without asking my permission. Every so often a word or a phrase sits up straight, clears its throat, and tickles me in the back of the brain to get my attention. That's a word moment.

There's more than one kind of word moment.

Sometimes you find yourself articulating the sounds of a word you use all the time, and it just sounds wrong. That can't possibly be the word you use to express that meaning, can it? (Spoon. Spoon? Spooooon. Spoon! Huh. Spoon.)

That's a word moment of the first kind—reintroducing yourself to the sound of a word you've known all your life.

Sometimes you'll use a word, and realize you know exactly where it came from, even though you've never thought about it before. (I will do it. Will? It's my will that I'll do it. He's a lieutenant. Lieutenant? Lieu meaning place, tenant like teneo meaning hold? Placeholder.)

That's a word moment of the second kind—an etymological eureka.

Sometimes it's a whole phrase you acquired as a single compound word, maybe in childhood, without ever breaking it down into its component parts. Suddenly you realize the parts have meant something all along without you noticing. How did you ever miss it? (Froot Loops? Because they're loops flavored like fruit.)

That's a word moment of the third kind—recognizing that the whole is actually made up of parts.

Why do we have word moments, and why the different kinds? They seem to me like reanalysis, reorganization of the mental lexicon—phonological, morphological, and semantic. Are we exerting conscious control over the generalizations in our lexicons? Is it unconscious—garbage collection in our language modules—and we occasionally notice the man behind the curtain? Do children have word moments? Are children acquiring language (10 words per day!) living in one big word moment? Or is it precisely not noticing the words that allows children to acquire language so fast?

Beats me.

Hmm. Beats. Beeeats. Beatssss...

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Comments

Or what about when you have word moments, or better epiphanies, in a second languange. What I mean is that a concept or a word that has eluded you for a long time all of sudden is crystal clear.

It's been a while in Korean, but it does happen and I am looking forward to the next one.

Posted by: Blinger at Mar 17, 2004 4:59:37 PM

Dude, we you channelling Lileks last night, or what?

Cloud. Clowd. Clooowwwww-duh. Cuh-loowwwwwd.

(I suddenly feel like I'm living inside an episode of The Electric Company. Any minute now Morgan Freeman's going to wander by in his Spidey suit.)

Posted by: The Wife at Mar 17, 2004 9:28:59 PM

I do this constantly, to the point of synesthesia; it was a favorite daydream game when I was a child, too. But now I'm the most facile English speaker in my crowd.

Posted by: speedwell at Mar 26, 2004 8:52:00 AM

Like the phrase you coined. Those are wonderful moments. Interesting thought that it's the mental lexicon shifting.

Posted by: Pearl at Mar 29, 2004 12:29:41 PM

Insightful observation! I have this all the time. I seem at times to experience the opposite effect as well: as a non-native speaker of English, I sometimes use a word (especially in fast-paced conversation) that I feel I have never used before, and it leaves me feeling a bit insecure. When I look it up, however (we're all geeks in here, right?), nine times out of ten it will turn out that I have indeed used the correct word.

The most recent Reverse Word Moment word that comes to mind: "to schmooze".

Posted by: paul (gnfti) at Jul 29, 2004 12:34:56 AM

There's one more kind of word moment. . .Those times when you look at word you've just written and can't remember ever seeing those words in that order before. That happened to me with the word "pencil" just the other day

Posted by: beth at Feb 7, 2005 10:02:52 AM

I second that (what beth says). Once in a while, you write down a word and look at it, but it seems to be spelled miscorrectly when you're sure it's right. You don't remember them being in that order before. You start to question yourself. This is especially prevalent in words that don't sound the way they look or are written.

Posted by: daniel at Mar 2, 2005 10:57:25 PM

daniel--YES! I've had this problem with "only"...

Posted by: mariel at Feb 13, 2007 10:27:14 PM

Man, I thought I was the only person that had "word moments." I always just figured it was me being neurotic or something. Although now that I think about it, when I was a kid, my friends and I would repronounce words in different ways to confuse each other. Maybe it just stuck. Maybe it's all just self-imposed lexical OCD. I dunno.

Posted by: Nathaniel Siqueiros at Aug 9, 2007 1:00:15 PM

Word.
Shouldn't that be... werd?

Weird.

Sorry. I'm wired.

Posted by: alan arcadia at Aug 14, 2007 12:23:14 AM

Whew! Glad to know I'm not the only one.

Posted by: RC at Mar 7, 2008 7:13:57 AM

Does this include those moments when familiar words seem nonsensical after repetition? Happened to me while unrolling some CAUTION tape the other day....

Posted by: Laura at Apr 7, 2008 10:33:03 PM

i just experienced what you call "word moment". i was trying to answer a quiz game in the internet when i realized, the word i typed (after typing it four times) wasn't correct or misspelled! it seemed a word i never came across before.. the word by the way was "PADDLE" (= typed it as PADDEL) - shameful.. T_T

Posted by: dudezzz007 at Jun 4, 2008 6:10:58 AM

Evidently (there is evidence), I am not the only one with such experiences. T'is a higher awareness.

Posted by: RC at Feb 14, 2009 1:19:21 AM

My favorite word moment actually belonged to someone else: My ex-husband, who is color-blind, realized that oranges are orange. What an aha that was!

Posted by: Martha at Aug 23, 2009 10:48:19 AM

I grew up around "perrrrrrrrrty", "y'aaaaaaaaaaaall", and "Yeeeeeeeeeeehaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!!!"

I've had alot of word moments, yet not with those. I just realized this T.T

In other news: who remembers the mouth epidemic?

mouth - moth- - merph (seriously) - me-owth.

Ah yes, mowthe. But there is one word even better than the others:

Spork - the child of Spune and 4q.

Those were the days! X3

Posted by: Calan at Apr 29, 2010 5:06:51 PM

It happens to me in English but never in Mandarin. English and Mandarin are equal first languages for me.

Posted by: jack at Oct 27, 2010 3:16:08 AM