Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Mysterious Vu Sisters

Déjà vu gets all the glory. For some reason, everyone seems to know the term for the false sensation of having experienced a thing before. Quite a specific concept, when you think about it. Then again, I know many people who have felt this way, either as a result of some glimmer of past life shining through the darkness of the beyond or simply because their lives consist of the same boring events over and over again and some degree of familiarity is only natural. In either case, simply announcing “Whoa… Déjà vu” gets to the point a lot more quickly then explaining the concept from beginning to end, so I suppose its popularity shouldn’t be surprising.

Déjà vu, however, is only one member of a group. Commonly referred to as the vus, it consists of déjà vu, the opposite of déjà vu, and a third one that doesn’t really have a counterpart and doesn’t really belong. You know, like you see with families with more than two kids.

To start with: anti-déjà vu:
jamais vu (ZHA-may-voo) — noun: 1. a disorder of memory characterized by the illusion that the familiar is being encountered for the first time. 2. the temporary sensation that a familiar experience is being encountered for the first time.
In the way that déjà vu literally translates from French as “already seen,” jamais vu simply means “never seen.”

As I understand the concept, jamais vu is not simply forgetfulness or amnesia about a specific thing. I’m guessing jamais vu is most frequently experienced in relation to words, since most of what’s written on the subject puts it this context. For example, the Wikipedia page on jamais vu quotes an article from the Times that mentions a study at Leeds University in which participants were asked to write the word door thirty times in sixty seconds. More than half eventually found the word unfamiliar, sometimes even doubting whether door was even a word. The Wikipedia article goes on to explain this linguistic sense of jamais vu could result from the fact that out-of-context repetition of words — door or hangnail or synergy or 9/11 or whatever else — will eventually strips them of two of the three qualities that words have: function (how it works in a sentence) and meaning (what concept it’s attached to), leaving only form (how it’s written or what sounds make up the spoken version). So I guess there’s a literal truth in the notion of hearing or speaking a word so often that it loses its meaning.

For the life of me, I can’t recall a incident from my life or anyone else’s in which someone experienced jamais vu outside of the linguistic sense. Most examples I can dream up — “Is this my pen? I don’t remember buying this pen” — seem more like an example of a fact simply being forgotten because it wasn’t important enough to remember. Conversely, most examples of déjà vu I can think of involve an experience — a conversation or a chain of events or the merely existing in given setting.

It’s interesting, then, that the third vu — the Jan Brady one that I alluded to earlier — also seems largely word-based: presque vu (literally, “almost seen”), which has even less of a chance of making it into common English parlance by virtue of the fact that we English-speakers already have a name for this concept in the form of the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon. You know, when you just can’t retrieve a bit of information that you’re certain you should have. Oddly, it seems to happen more often with names than it does with other words. According to the Wikipedia page for Tip of the Tongue, the concept is universal, with most languages each having their own expressive way of saying that they can’t speak the thing they want to speak but nearly all of them mentioning the tongue. Odd, considering that the organ at fault during this situations is more likely the brain.

Now go use your vus wisely.

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