The tip of the tongue

When we are trying to remember something, and we have an idea of it, but can’t recall it precisely, or perhaps we remember having known it but cannot quite recall, we might use this expression; “it’s on the tip of my tongue”.

The origin of this expression appears to be connected simply to the fact that we use our tongues to speak with, and it conjures up an image of a word or phrase being literally on the tongue, at the front of the mouth, ready to leap out in words as soon as the speaker’s memory is jogged.

Interestingly, a number of other languages use exactly the same expression: in Spanish you might say lo tengo en la punta de la lengua, in Italian we see ce l’ho sulla punta della lingua, which is just the same. French people would use sur le bout de la langue, where bout can also mean “end”.

The Turkish phrase is again exactly the same: dilimin ucunda, “at the tip of my tongue”. To anyone unfamiliar with this language, it may seem unlikely that a whole phrase can fit into just two words, but it can be broken down as follows:

Dil = tongue
-im = my
-in = of

= tip
-u = of
-nda = at

In German, you don’t specify that it is the end of your tongue that is weighted down, the expression there is es liegt mir auf der Zunge; literally, it’s lying on my tongue.

Finally, in Greek, things are not at the tip of your tongue, but under it, perhaps hiding there, waiting to spring out! Greeks would say: Είναι κάτω από τη γλώσσα μου (einai kato apo ti glossa mou) which literally translates as “it’s under my tongue”.

An interesting point to add to this is to look specifically at the expression in Welsh. If we take the English expression directly into Welsh, “on the tip of my tongue” becomes ar flaen fy nhafod. The fascinating thing about this is the difference in meaning when compared with the other languages we have looked at. According to R.E. Jones Llyfr o Idiomau Cymraeg (Book of Welsh Idioms), this expression means “something that is so familiar to me that I can talk about it freely”. This is quite a change, considering that the whole point in the other languages is that we cannot speak freely, the words won’t come.

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