Rick Perry's Tip-of-the-Tongue Gaffe -- What's It All About?

A linguist says it's about word frequency, proper names and Romney's attempt to help

Release Date: November 14, 2011

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Rick Perry's failure to retrieve the name of one of the federal agencies he would abolish if elected president, namely the Department of Energy, was most likely an example of a very common phenomenon called "Tip of the Tongue" phenomenon or "TOT," says a University at Buffalo psycholinguist.

"TOT occurs when we know the meaning of the word or words we want to retrieve but are unable to access their sounds," says Gail Mauner, PhD, associate professor in the UB Departments of Psychology and Linguistics.

She says that often, when we are in a TOT state, we have partial access to the form aspects of a word or phrase -- that is, we might be able to say what the first letter is or how many syllables it has but are not able to retrieve the entire word.

"It is important to remember that TOT states are typically not a measure of intelligence. Nor are should they be taken as evidence of a lack of knowledge," she says, noting that Rick Perry, as a governor of Texas, is likely to be quite knowledgeable about the Department of Energy.

"TOT states are more common for words that are infrequent -- like 'pulchritude' and 'protractor' -- and for proper names like 'Romaine Brooks' or 'Albert Brooks.' In fact," she says, "the majority of naturally occurring TOT states are linked to proper names and the likelihood of finding oneself in such a state increases as we get older."

TOT occurs for words that are not produced very often and for proper names because of how words are represented in the brain, she says.

"There is a lot of experimental evidence showing that when we produce a word, we first retrieve (or activate) its meaning, and then we retrieve or activate its sounds, then put them in the appropriate order to produce the word. So it is not at all surprising that one could know the meaning of what one wants to say without being able to retrieve the sounds for the word or words," she says.

When a word is not produced very frequently, Mauner says, the connections between its meaning and its sounds may be weak. Because the word is not highly practiced, these connections can be easily interfered with by residual activation from sounds that have been recently produced in other words.

"It takes a bit of time for the activation of a meaning or sound to decay," Mauner says, "which is why prior production of words with overlaps in speech sounds helps reduce the likelihood of TOT states for low-frequency words.

"The activation of the sounds of the previously produced word help in increasing the activation of the intended speech target," she says, "but activation of meanings that are similar to the meaning of the intended word or phrase can also activate speech sounds that might become more accessible than the speech sounds of the word or phrase that one is trying to retrieve."

Mauner says this may have happened when Mitt Romney tried to help Rick Perry by suggesting that what Perry was trying to retrieve was the term "EPA" or "Environmental Protection Agency." Activating the speech sounds for the EPA may have temporarily made it more difficult for Perry to retrieve "Energy."

"Thus," she says, "Romney's intended helpfulness might have done more harm than good by temporarily making more available other speech sounds than the ones that Perry was trying to retrieve."

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