You probably know about deja vu, but do you know about its opposite?
Imagine this: You're walking down the street, making your way home after a night out with friends. One friend makes a comment, another responds, and you perk up your ears—you've heard this exact conversation before. In fact, even though you're in a neighborhood that's new to you, everything from the streetlights to the bustle of traffic to the animated chatter of your friends feels deeply familiar. It's as though you're looping back to a moment that's already been logged in your memory, even though that can't possibly be the case. You may have even paused and marveled at the creepy phenomenon: "Whoa! Deja vu."
Most of us know what deja vu is, and it's fairly common to experience it from time to time. But where does the term come from? What's the opposite of deja vu? And are there any terms for similar phenomena that are less well-known?
What does 'deja vu' mean?
As you've probably figured out from the sound of the word, deja vu comes from French; it means "already seen." And that's appropriate! Deja vu describes the eerie sensation when something previously unknown to you—like a new neighborhood or a conversation that's never happened before—suddenly feels like a memory of something you've already experienced.
Merriam-Webster defines deja vu as "the illusion of remembering scenes and events when experienced for the first time" or "a feeling that one has seen or heard something before."
Deja vu can also mean "something overly or unpleasantly familiar." If you keep trying to grow houseplants only to have them wither and turn brown a few months later, you might look at your fading ficus and say, "I'm getting a feeling of deja vu."
Although both the Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster keep the accent marks from the French spelling, it's not uncommon to see "deja vu" written in English texts without accent marks, in part because the Associated Press didn't use accent marks at all before 2019 because their system couldn't transmit the marks, and even today only uses them in names. [We initially used the accent marks here, but removed them when we became aware that they did not render properly on some phones.]
The scientific term for the phenomenon described as deja vu is "promnesia," which Etymonline tells us is Modern Latin from Greek "pro," which translates to "before," plus "-mnēsia," which is "memory." Think of the similar word, "amnesia." That's "a," which means "not," plus "mnesi"—which means "remembering." Amnesia literally means "not remembering."
What's the opposite of deja vu?
Comedian George Carlin described something he called "vuja de"—"the strange feeling that, somehow, none of this has happened before." Carlin's made-up word was just nonsense, a comedic reversal of the term "deja vu." But does deja vu have a real opposite?
It does, although the term is less well-known. It's "jamais vu." "Jamais vu" is also French, and it means "never seen."
Jamais vu is the opposite of deja vu. It comes from French and means "never seen."
Although you might occasionally hear people refer to jamais vu in casual contexts, it's actually a medical term. Doctors use it to describe not recognizing something familiar, like if you walk into your back yard and it feels like you've never been there before. You may have experienced a mild form of jamais vu called word blindness, which happens when a familiar word suddenly doesn't look like a real word anymore. One study found that 60% of college students say they have experienced this kind of word blindness.
What the heck is presque vu?
"Presque vu" translates from French to "almost seen." It's a more obscure term that describes being on the edge of an epiphany, or that feeling like something is "on the tip of your tongue" — but you just can't get there.
Other French terms similar to deja vu
It turns out French is a handy language for describing strange psychological phenomena. Here are a few other terms you can use to impress your friends.
Deja vecu — "Already lived." This is an intense but false feeling that you've already lived through the present situation. Deja vu is a short-lived phenomenon, but deja vecu is a false memory of a whole sequence of events, which can even lead to the conviction that one has lived past lives.
Deja entendu — "Already heard." It's a false feeling that something you've never heard before is familiar. It's the audio-only version of deja vu.
Deja lu — "Already read." If you've got the weird sense that the book you're reading is something you've read before, even though it was just released, you're experiencing deja lu.
Deja reve — "Already dreamed." Often confused with deja vu, this is the sensation that something you're experiencing right now in the waking world has already happened to you in a dream.
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