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Chloe Effron

Why Does a Word Sometimes Lose All Meaning?

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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.

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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]


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