Quick, somebody bring the WD-40 to loosen my tongue

RECENTLY, the word at the tip of my tongue has become rather elusive.

Most recently, it happened during my commute. My walk from the subway station to work takes me through part of Manhattan's garment district (or "fashion district," as it's now called). I pass tons of millineries, shoe repair shops and fabric stores with signs in the window reading "AL POR MAYOR."

For the first two months I thought there was some guy named Al who perennially ran for mayor and lost. Now I know that "AL POR MAYOR" means "wholesale" or "bulk buyers," which is more rational but less charming.

But that's not the example. Every morning, I see workers pulling wheeled wardrobes up and down the street. This is the sort of sight that directors use in a montage, a visual shorthand for "Manhattan" or possibly "The Garment, er, Fashion District." It took weeks for me to remember a word I wanted to use to describe those wardrobes: "skid," a noun referring to a certain type of loading pallet.

This sort of thing happens to me more often, I've noticed over the past few years. Is this because my diction is getting worse or better? Will I come down with the paralysis of perfectionism, where the well will seem dry because the water it holds is slightly impure?

I'm in no danger of becoming easy to understand. I still use far too many two-dollar words in conversation (and writing!) where 10-cent words would do. A few weekends ago I found myself cheerfully explaining what "syncretic" and "facile" mean, over the roar of the moving subway car, to a guy with a doctorate.

To save you the Google trip: Something that is syncretic has drawn from many sources and has combined different elements from them. A facile solution or answer is too easy and superficial, not giving the problem the thought it deserves.

I love big words. I'd be happy in the Dictionopolis bazaar in Norton Juster's classic children's novel "The Phantom Tollbooth." The hawkers would tell me that Xs and Zs taste dusty, while Is are refreshingly icy. I imagine "syncretic" would taste like a tube of assorted jelly candies and look like an octopus with a patchwork quilt for skin. "Facile" would smell like cheap perfume and wouldn't quite taste like anything, but after I ate it I'd feel a sour nausea in my stomach, like a Wednesday morning half-hangover.

But word porn isn't the only appeal. An English teacher of mine, explaining that a bigger vocabulary gives you more expressive power, commented that knowing the word "pilot" means that you don't have to say "the person who drives the plane." Names are like handles for ideas; they make it easier to deploy your thoughts. I have been known to read dictionaries for pleasure, but there's a surge of power, too, that shows up when I use the words I've learned.

The most powerful word I've learned in the past decade is probably "satisfice." Researcher Herb Simon coined this word, a combination of "satisfy" and "suffice," to describe a common decision-making method: instead of evaluating all possible options, we take the first adequate one. We often don't have the time or resources to find the optimal solution, so we quickly satisfice instead. I've taken to reminding myself to satisfice when ordering in restaurants. If I hadn't learned the word, I might not be using the concept.

Some people think in shapes or sounds; I think in words. (In fact, back when I was with my ex, red flags should have gone up when I found out he thinks in shapes and structures, not words. There was no way that relationship could work.) So I worry when the handles start to disappear.

My parents tell me that, as a kid, I once asked an uncle what "jurisprudence" meant, and he had to look it up. (It's the philosophy or study of law.) This story of rising comprehension and word power, followed by a painful decline, reminds me of Daniel Keyes's novel "Flowers For Algernon." Charlie Gordon had a meteoric rise into genius and then a sudden fall back into the weeds.

I haven't gone that fast or that far, but I still worry that I've piled too many words precariously atop each other, and that as I push that skid down the street, the ones on top will slough off onto the asphalt.

Sumana Harihareswara writes arcane prose for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.