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Circumlocution

A Fancy Way to Say Word-Finding Difficulties

by Susan M. Schultz, EdD

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Circumlocution. It?s a fancy, technical word. It means talking about an idea in a round about way, or using more words than necessary to say what you mean in an indirect sort of way. I teach this concept each semester to my undergraduate Language Development class. However, I didn't expect to experience it first hand.

In education classes, we relate the term to students with learning disabilities who often know what they want to say but can?t succinctly get their point across. In my ovarian cancer support group, we relate the concept to “chemo brain.”

For me, chemo brain was like living in a fog. Nothing seemed to have the clarity it required, frustrating me to no end. When we were eating dinner and I needed a knife, I couldn't come up with the word. Instead, I would say something like “Can you pass me the thing that you spread butter with?” Words like “thing-a-ma-jig” and “whatcha-ma-call-it” became part of my vocabulary. My family and friends would patiently wait me out until I finally got my point across. The most frustrating part of all of this was that I knew what I didn't know. I knew I had that word or idea hidden away behind the cobwebs in my brain. I just couldn't get to it.

Words like “thing-a-ma-jig” and “what-cha-ma-call-it” became part of my vocabulary.

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Dr. Susan Schultz

This fog didn't relate only to words. Simple math was impossible. I pulled out the check book one day, wrote in the amount, looked at the numbers and realized I might as well have been trying to subtract x from z. Nothing. I had no idea where to begin. I just sat there frozen, looking at the numbers. That is when I decided I needed to do something, but what?

I thought about the years I spent in the elementary classroom. How did I help my students who were having these same difficulties? I began to immerse myself in rote, repetitive activities, starting out very simply. I worked on easy crossword puzzles, word searches, Mad Libs, anything that would get that part of my brain working. I played simple computer games. I worked through the two minute math drills I used in my early teaching days, forgetting about the two minute time frame and concentrating on getting just a few of the problems correct.

Each day I tried to do a little better, even if it was completing a few more lines of a puzzle or getting a couple more math problems right. Then I gave my husband?s Sudoku book a try. Bad idea. I put the book away. A few months later, I revisited that same Sudoku book and found I could fill some of it in. Now I can complete an entire puzzle, so I am working on increasing the difficulty level. In my head, I gave myself the same pep talks that I previously had given to my students: “Look you got five right today, two more than yesterday!” “Don?t give up. Nothing worth working for comes easy.” “Give it your best and know that I am proud of you for working so hard.” I don?t know for sure whether the practice exercises and the pep talks to myself helped, but I think they did.

It seemed to me like doctors and nurses, well-meaning family members and friends, insurance companies, and the like were making all the decisions, telling me what I could do and when I could do it. “Eat, even if you are not hungry.” “Your insurance company doesn't allow you to have your blood drawn at the hospital. You?ll have to go to a lab.” “Take a break; I?ll do that.”

Don?t get me wrong. I truly appreciate all the help and support I have received along the way. Yet, I was feeling like this was my life and I was only going along for the ride. I wanted to do something to help myself. Completing these practice exercises made me feel like I had some control over my life. It made me feel like I was doing something to regain skills I felt I lost. It was a slow, but steady, process. But it was worth the effort.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Susan Schultz teaches in the education department at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2008.