Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Why Does a Word Sometimes Lose All Meaning?

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

It’s a bizarre scourge afflicting editors and writers, casual readers, and pretty much anyone pondering a word for any length of time. Consider the word flower. F-l-o-w-e-r. Flowers. The flower in the field. The flower in the grass. Flower. Flower. Flower.

… F-l-o-w-e-r?! 

Did the word just kind of disintegrate before your eyes? Become strange, incomprehensible, or a meaningless string of letters? If so, what just happened to you is nothing new. The phenomenon was first described in The American Journal of Psychology in 1907:

If a printed word is looked at steadily for some little time, it will be found to take on a curiously strange and foreign aspect. This loss of familiarity in its appearance sometimes makes it look like a word in another language, sometimes proceeds further until the word is a mere collection of letters, and occasionally reaches the extreme where the letters themselves look like meaningless marks on the paper.

Or, as Urban Dictionary succinctly describes the situation: “When you say a word so much it starts to sound fu**ing weird.”

Over the years, this mental literary fail has gone by many names: work decrement, extinction, reminiscence, verbal transformation. But the best known and recognized term is "semantic satiation."

Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s College of Social Sciences, coined the term in 1962. In James’ doctoral thesis on the subject at McGill University, he conducted a variety of experiments to explore how the concept affects thinking.

“It’s a kind of a fatigue,” James, now 77, says. “It’s called reactive inhibition: When a brain cell fires, it takes more energy to fire the second time, and still more the third time, and finally the fourth time it won’t even respond unless you wait a few seconds. So that kind of reactive inhibition that was known as an effect on brain cells is what attracted me to an idea that if you repeat a word, the meaning in the word keeps being repeated, and then it becomes refractory, or more resistant to being elicited again and again.”

According to James, any word can fall prey to semantic satiation, but the amount of time before words begin to lose meaning can vary. For example, words that elicit strong dramatic connotations or emotions—think explosion—can seem to lack the satiation effect because your brain focuses on and cycles through other associations with the word, lessening an otherwise speedy pathway to bewilderment. And as the stimulus is presented again and again, you get more resistant to the stimuli. James recalled an early study that presented a sleeping cat with a tone. The cat immediately woke up. But as they played the tone again and again, the cat took a little longer to wake up each time, until it just kept on sleeping. But when the tone was varied slightly, the cat immediately sprung into action.

Over the years, James’s work has also showed that semantic satiation is more than just a perplexing plight for readers. One experiment he conducted sought to explore whether semantic satiation could be used to lessen stuttering. James had an assistant call on the phone a study participant who stuttered—creating a situation designed to increase anxiety for the subject because verbal cues and other in-person elements can’t be used to assist communication—and speak for one minute. Ten minutes later, the assistant called again for another minute. The assistant repeated the cycle a total of 10 times throughout the day. James says the goal was to induce semantic satiation in the stuttering participant related to the emotion of the stress-inducing phone call. And he says it worked. 

James also explored music. He studied pop charts, and found that the songs that came onto the charts fastest—and thus received the most concentrated amount of airtime—were the ones that left the charts altogether the fastest. The songs that slowly climbed the charts to the top position went out just as slowly, fading away versus burning out. 

But why do we even like to listen to a song more than once? To take a deeper dive into the notion of semantic satiation in music, consider the chorus. As Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, writes on Aeon, semantic satiation plays a key role in song lyrics. Due to the repetition of choruses, the words and phrases become “satiated” and lose their meaning—and no longer really register as words.

“The simple act of repetition makes a new way of listening possible, a more direct confrontation with the sensory attributes of the word itself," Margulis writes. "This is precisely the way that repetition in music works to make the nuanced, expressive elements of the sound increasingly available, and to make a participatory tendency—a tendency to move or sing along—more irresistible.”

While James has since turned his attention to such topics as road rage, semantic satiation is still analyzed today across a variety of disciplines. Artists have explored the concept. The curious (but sadly defunct) Semantic Satiation Twitter bot tweeted about it. Marketers are rethinking their sales ploys thanks to the concept. One timely example is “Black Friday Malady.” Thanks to overuse, “Black Friday” is no longer the valuable hook it once was. We’ve repeated it so much that it is now as indistinct as the packages of generic Wal-Mart string cheese that you storm past on your way to brawl over a half-price vegetable steamer at 3 a.m.

Yes, the phenomenon is odd. But stranger things have happened. After all, consider that this is a real, grammatically correct sentence: “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” Just say it before the semantic satiation kicks in.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
iStock
iStock

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios