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If someone draws a blank in conversation, should you supply the word?

I lost a word last week — a simple, five-letter word that I needed as I explained to a friend a particular pasta dish: green with basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and Parmesan cheese. I had all the ingredients and not the word. You know what I mean and fortunately, my friend knew as well. Pesto!

Where had such an uncomplicated noun vanished? How had it escaped from my memory? And why this word at this time; why this disappearing act? And why couldn't I entice this humble menu item to return?

For a writer in love with language, this occasional, albeit temporary (I hope) loss of eloquence is inconvenient at best, teeth-gnashingly frustrating at worst.

I've heard that it happens as we grow older — sometimes earlier in our lives, sometimes later. A friend in his 80s was explaining a course he is taking: The American Revolution and How It Was Financed. He talked about King George III and his British soldiers. Suddenly he stopped mid-sentence, unable to summon a clearly colorful description. It was effortless for my always nimble brain to supply the word "redcoats.'' My friend smiled. "That's it,'' he said, obviously relieved. He thanked me as I had thanked my friend for "pesto.''

It is not the first time I have provided a word, a phrase, or scarily, even finished a sentence for a friend or relative. Or that another person has generously offered one to me.

Not everyone is as gracious as my friend was with "redcoats.''

Nor is everyone eager to assume the position of mind reader or human thesaurus. There's another side: those friends or relatives who can scarcely conceal their glee at the first "um'' or suspension in a storyteller's delivery as they leap in, all caution tossed aside to continue the tale or sum up the narrative in his or her own words. Indeed, another friend described this very situation. It's something her husband of 50 years does as he interrupts her flow of words. She dislikes it intensely, especially when he is wrong. At other times she doesn't mind at all the gift of an occasional word from a friend. We are not, after all, raconteurs as talented as Jon Stewart or the late, great John Updike. One has a number of writers, the other was a brilliant writer and storyteller.

With this in mind, I asked 11 friends and family members, ages 55 to 83, in an extremely unscientific poll, "How do you feel when someone supplies a word or phrase when you are unable to think of it?'' Nine of the 11 thought it would be all right once in a while. All nine added the disclaimer that the friend or relative "must know me well.'' The other two were adamant. "It is no one's prerogative to take my words, my thoughts, from me, no matter how long it takes me to collect them or put them together.''

Uh oh. I wondered then — did I do a favor for my friend? Was it intrusive? Should I feel guilty for adding my bit to his narrative when he faltered? Is there a minimum or maximum waiting period before jumping in with a word? Is finishing another person's sentence just rude?

And so, with proper nouns, even modifying clauses and adjectives scampering away from us, why then do I remember with excruciating clarity the poetry of John Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Shakespeare (just ask me to recite John of Gaunt's deathbed speech from Richard II)? Or the telephone number and address of the apartment my family lived in when I was 8 years old? All of this (and more) remains undiminished, untouched by time and happily ensconced in my brain. And yes, I can still sing all the words of the Beatles' Yesterday as well as the music from Handel's Hallelujah chorus (a bit off-key to be sure, but hey . . .).

But I, um, digress. (Um, by the way, is my favorite pause-filling word.) And that, too, is possibly part of the problem of our labyrinthine brains with their diminishing neurons — or if they aren't diminishing, the rapidity of their connections leaves something to be desired. Sadly, neurologists, psychiatrists and other scientists still know less about the brain than astronomers know about the moon.

So please allow me an occasional "um'' while my brain jumps through hoops and enters word-search mode and I, too, will allow you your pauses and meanderings. Unless, of course, and only if, you are a very close friend or family member or we've shared the same experience together: travel, movies, dinners, knee replacement surgery, a snowstorm, and unless you look at me directly and say, "Help!''

Rachel Pollack is a freelance writer who lives in Denver.

If someone draws a blank in conversation, should you supply the word? 02/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 9:55am]
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