It slipped my mind: words and phrases connected with forgetting

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by Liz Walter

Back in 2015, my colleague Kate Woodford wrote a post about words connected with remembering. Today’s post looks at the opposite: words and phrases for forgetting.

It is surprising that for such an important concept, there aren’t really any direct, one-word synonyms for the verb ‘forget’. A slightly formal way to talk about forgetting is to say that you have no memory/recollection of something:

We lived in Russia when I was a baby, but I have no memory of that time.

The informal phrase go in one ear and out the other is often used to show exasperation when someone fails to remember things you tell them:

I’ve explained the rule to her, but it goes in one ear and out the other.

If someone often forgets things, we can say that they have a memory/mind like a sieve (a sieve is a piece of kitchen equipment with a plastic or wire net, and which can be used to separate solids from liquids):

Where did I put my passport? Honestly, I’ve got a memory like a sieve!

We use the phrase slip your memory/mind for specific and usually fairly unimportant things that we forget temporarily, not for things that we can’t remember at all:

She had promised to call John, but it slipped her mind.

If you say that something is on the tip of your tongue, you mean that you can almost remember it:

Oh, what’s that plant called? It’s on the tip of my tongue!

In a similar way, you can say that something escapes or (more formally) eludes you:

His name escapes me at the moment.

If you suddenly forget something (for instance, because you are in a stressful situation), you can say that your mind goes blank:

His lawyer asked what movie I had gone to see last week and my mind went blank.

If we can’t remember an event clearly, we often say that it is (all) a bit of a blur:

To be honest, the awards ceremony was so long ago that it’s all a bit of a blur.

Sometimes we forget things because they are shocking or very upsetting. We can say that we bury, blank out, repress or suppress painful memories. These verbs can be used to describe forgetting that is deliberate and forgetting that is not intentional:

Memories he had long suppressed began to surface.

The verb erase is used for getting rid of a memory permanently:

He tried to erase all memory of his ex-wife.

Finally, the medical term for being unable to remember things is amnesia. Slightly less technically, we also talk about memory loss. We sometimes jokingly say that someone has selective amnesia when we mean that they only seem to remember the things they want to remember!

18 thoughts on “It slipped my mind: words and phrases connected with forgetting

  1. Adolfo Bonilla Haase

    Fantastic post.
    Very useful especially for someone like me who are working hard to improve my spoken english.

    1. Elizabeth Walter

      Yes, I’m no medical expert, but I believe amnesia can be temporary and Alzheimers is just one form of dementia, although the most common.

    2. Liz Walter

      I’m no medical expert, but I believe amnesia can be temporary and Alzheimers is just one form of dementia, although the most common.

  2. Paola L

    About the phrase “on the tip of your tongue”, I’ve heard one which says “by the skin on my teeth”, which one is better? I think the second one is a british expression, isn’t it?

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes it is, but it has a different meaning. It’s for when you only just managed to do something: I got the essay in on time by the skin of my teeth.

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