(I'm not a linguist, just generally interested in languages, so forgive me if I lack the appropriate vocabulary.)

There are some examples here, but the general gist is that someone forgets a word (in my case, "shovel") and substitutes a usually multi-word, often inaccurate or outright wrong synonym ("dirt spoon"). This obviously isn't a common synonym for shovel, but gets the point across, especially when there's a shovel visually present to cement the impression. Other examples include "sea pancake" for manta ray and "cereal water" for milk.

There usually seems to be some kind of analogy going on, if not always clear. The speaker tends to default to a similar item and attach an adjective or other descriptor. Not all examples in the link do so, but I'm more interested in the ones that do.

I don't know if this is a frequent linguistic phenomenon or if it's just somewhat prevalent on the internet.

  • I've heard of this process being used by people with dementia, whose mental processes are mostly fine, but they just can't remember that word ... Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 14:17
  • I don't think it's limited to people with dementia. If anything it just feels like a creative solution to a momentary lapse in memory.
    – Hexephra
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 1:12
  • It's also a communication strategy used by non-native speakers who don't know or can't remember the word they want to use.
    – user2081
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 5:15

1 Answer 1


Yep, these are called circumlocutions. Someone who is frequently unable to remember the right words could be diagnosed with anomic aphasia.

  • I guess OP has a certain special and specific kind of metaphoric circumlocution, rather than the descriptive kind of circumlocutions we would normally think of. But I doubt there's any different specialized word. Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 8:18
  • +1 @curiousdanni. That's the word - I just couldn't bring it to mind ... Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 13:38

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