When Even the Simplest Word Looks Weird And Wrong You Have Wordnesia

We don’t really know why it happens, but at least there is a term for it

mixed-up letters
Peo Quick/Matton Collection/Corbis

Ever written down or typed a very simple, common word and been struck by just how oddly it's spelled? Maybe the word starts to scramble so badly that you actually forget how it’s spelled at all. Matthew J.X. Malady recently had this problem with the word "project." He writes for Slate:

I’d venture to guess that during the course of my life I’ve read and written that word thousands of times—perhaps tens of thousands. It’s not a rare word by any stretch. I promise that I know how to spell it. And yet, there I was, flummoxed. Praject looked ridiculous. Prawject? No, that couldn’t be it. Maybe it was Pragect? Each new option was more absurd than the last. And, of course, I now fully realize the not-even-close-at-all nature of every one of those bizarrely spelled offerings.

Malady’s mixup wasn’t the result of anything alarming. It’s just a common brain glitch called wordnesia. This problem crops up when you can’t spell the simplest words. When familiar words suddenly seem like the strangest things. We don’t know what exactly happens in the brain when wordnesia occurs, but some researchers have an idea. Malady spoke to a psychology and neuroscience professor at Baylor University, Charles A. Weaver III. Weaver describes how memory glitches trip us up when, for some reason, we slow down during tasks that are usually done on autopilot:

When you’re reading, what you’ve got is a very practiced part of the brain that responds automatically. I mean, when is the last time you looked at colonel and realized it was spelled funny? The automatic parts of reading take over. My guess, in the phenomenon you’re talking about, is that, very briefly, the automatic parts hit a speed bump and go, ‘that can’t be right.’ And those automatic tasks, when you disrupt them at all—when you think, ‘am I breathing on my backswing,’ or when you think, ‘should I push the clutch with my left foot’—anytime that you engage conscious monitoring of those parts that ought to be automatic, you get a hiccup.

That explains too why if you really think about a word, or repeat it over and over to yourself, that word starts to seem wrong. Like popsicle. Popsicle, popsicle, popsicle… yup, it’s weird.

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