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This happens to me frequently. I'll say, "Oh you know that guy... uhh... I can't remember his name. But he starts with a 'Z'." You can remember part of the word but not the whole word.

Is there a term for this situation? What causes it?

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    $\begingroup$ Brainfart. Although it's informal, I did hear someone using it in your case. $\endgroup$ Apr 2 '12 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ Anomic aphasia, also known as dysnomia, nominal aphasia, and amnesic aphasia; is a severe problem with recalling words or names. Wikipedia is a good source of info on the subject. Severe cases sometimes are traced back to a blow and subsequent damage to the left side of the brain. $\endgroup$
    – user3006
    May 14 '13 at 15:56
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This is called the Tip of the Tongue phenomenon.

People in a tip-of-the-tongue state can often recall one or more features of the target word, such as the first letter, its syllabic stress, and words similar in sound and/or meaning. Individuals report a feeling of being seized by the state, feeling something like mild anguish while searching for the word, and a sense of relief when the word is found.

It's a very common phenomenon, and it presents itself in several similar forms, as the Wikipedia description notes. Remembering just the first letter is a common form but not the only cue.

There are a couple of suggested causes, but generally the problem is failure to completely retrieve information you "know" is in fact there. The Wikipedia article has some information on the general theories.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer. This is the foundational paper for the topic in the cognitive psychology literature: Brown, R. & McNeill, D. (1966). The "tip of the tongue" phenomenon. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 325-337. $\endgroup$ Apr 1 '12 at 1:28

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