One hour and seven minutes into the decidedly hit-or-miss 1996 comedy Black Sheep, the wiseass sidekick character played by David Spade finds himself at an unusually pronounced loss for words. While riding in a car driven by Chris Farley’s character, he glances at a fold-up map and realizes he somehow has become unfamiliar with the name for paved driving surfaces. “Robes? Rouges? Rudes?” Nothing seems right. Even when informed by Farley that the word he’s looking for is roads, Spade’s character continues to struggle: “Rowds. Row-ads.” By this point, he’s become transfixed. “That’s a total weird word,” he says, “isn’t it?”
Now, it’s perhaps necessary to mention that, in the context of the film, Spade’s character is high off nitrous oxide that has leaked from the car’s engine boosters. But never mind that. Row-ad-type word wig outs similar to the one portrayed in that movie are things that actually happen, in real life, to people with full and total control over their mental capacities. These wordnesias sneak up on us at odd times when we’re writing or reading text.
Here’s how they work: Every now and again, for no good or apparent reason, you peer at a standard, uncomplicated word in a section of text and, well, go all row-ads on it. If you’re typing, that means inexplicably blanking on how to spell something easy like cake or design. The reading version of wordnesia occurs when a common, correctly spelled word either seems as though it can’t possibly be spelled correctly, or like it’s some bizarre combination of letters you’ve never before seen—a grouping that, in some cases, you can’t even imagine being the proper way to compose the relevant term.