Forsake Me Not, O Mnemosyne

by admin on March 21, 2008

Last night, about five minutes before I left for chess club, I was talking with my wife, and I needed a word that means “a self-contradictory phrase.” I opened my mouth… and nothing came out! I couldn’t believe it. I knew that there is such a word, I’ve used it hundreds of times before, but it just wouldn’t come to me. It was like an advertisement I saw recently on TV, where the letter “h” drops out of the alphabet, and there’s just a blank on the typewriter where the “h” used to be. This time there was a blank in my mind where that word used to be.

For some reason this made me very upset. One of the things I hate about getting older is that I forget more and more things, especially people’s names. But to forget words? My friends, the tools with which I ply my trade? Oh, no!

And this was a particularly nice word, too. It’s a relatively late acquisition, a word I learned in high school, a word from Greek that always makes you sound erudite when you use it. And now it was gone. All I could remember was that it had an “m” in it, and I kept trying to come up with words that began with “m.”

As I’m driving to chess club, trying and trying to remember this word, I start wondering: How many other words have I forgotten? The scary thing is that if you forget a word, you’d never know, until you want to use it and it’s not there. And then I started thinking about chess openings. Am I on the verge of forgetting them, too, all the variations that I’ve ever committed to memory?

So I’m in this state of semi-hysteria, and my first game is against Juande Perea. I’m playing White. The game begins 1. e4 e5 2. f4 Bc5 3. Nf3 d6 4. c3, the King’s Gambit Declined, and then he plays 4. … Bg4. And suddenly it seems as if my nightmare is coming true! I know I’ve studied this move, but at I can’t remember the book response.

This is a basic position in the King’s Gambit Declined, but it so happens that it’s one I have never faced over the board, in a tournament or even in a blitz game, because my opponents usually play 4. … Nf6. Finally I remember that the book line involves the move Qa4+. But this is deceptive. It’s a little bit like remembering that my word has an “m” in it… but where? I played 5. Qa4+?, but after 5. … Nc6 my queen is feeling kind of sheepish. The boss told her to go to a4, but she has no idea what she’s doing there!

The correct move order was first 5. fe! de and now 6. Qa4+, when White is threatening Nxe5 and therefore Black must retreat his bishop to d7.

Well, it turns out that’s not the reason I lost the game. I actually ended up getting a decent kingside attack, but I wasn’t quite able to cash in, and I ended up losing because I had too many weak pawns in the endgame. Probably my opening faux pas did hurt me a bit, because it shook my confidence and caused me to be in time trouble late in the game.

When I got back in the car to drive home from chess club, I finally remembered the word I had been looking for! Have you figured it out yet? The word is “oxymoron.” I literally started bouncing up and down in my car seat, saying “Oxymoron! Oxymoron! Oxymoron!” As if maybe if I said it enough times, I wouldn’t forget it again.

Now I feel as if I want to use all the biggest, fanciest words that I know, just so I won’t lose them. That explains the title of this post!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob March 22, 2008 at 10:41 am

Dana your story reminds me of a story I heard about David Starr Jordan, a noted ichthyologist (an expert in the study of fish) ,who was the first president of Stanford University.

When he began his tenure as president of Stanford they had only a handful of students. It was easy for him to know everyone’s name.
As the number of students grew –
it became more diffacult to remember all their names.

Finally a student asked him…”Why is it Professor Jordan you can remember the names of all those fish? And you can’t remember the names of us students?”

To which he replied (allegedly) “the problem I have is that when I remember the name of a student,
I forget the name of a fish!”

I guess it can be solved by prioritizing those things you must remember and not worry about the things it might be nice to remember, but have no absolute need to recall.



Andy Hortillosa March 22, 2008 at 10:56 am


This is one of your best postings yet. I love the presentation. This is how we ought to write some of these chess books. By the way, my column did not run this past Monday. Hopefully, it would debut this coming Monday.



Soapstone March 24, 2008 at 4:27 pm

I laughed out loud at your struggles with “oxymoron”. I’m 38 and already worrying about the ravages of age. Luckily, I can clear off hard drive space by eliminating movie trivia because of and wikipedia for everything else. Gotta find more room for chess in there.

It’s fun to use fancy words and I like to intersperse them as well. So what if the readers think we’re pedants? Ahh, the old days of studying vocabulary for SAT preparation.

We missed you in Reno. Good luck in Tulsa!


admin March 25, 2008 at 8:45 am


I read on your blog about Reno. Congratulations to you and the other bloggers on your good tournaments! I was also impressed by the tremendous results of Daniel Naroditsky and Steven Zierk. Sounds like it was an exciting weekend! I couldn’t really afford two weekends in a row of chess heaven (Reno and Tulsa), so I had to pass on it this time. But you’ll see me in the fall.


Ernest Hong April 30, 2008 at 8:51 am

Today, I was trying on the fancy word “denouement” to describe my bishop sac-ing for a pawn on h3 and destroying White’s castled position. But I decided a more concrete concept would be better. What is the name of the log used to break down the castle door? It took me 10 minutes of vocabulary perturbations using Google to find “battering ram”.


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