CLOSE
Original image
Chloe Effron

Why Does a Word Sometimes Lose All Meaning?

Original image
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.

Original image
iStock
arrow
language
Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
Original image
iStock

Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.

1. “LE VER VERT VA VERS LE VERRE VERT” // FRENCH

This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.

2. “CUM EO EO EO EO QUOD EUM AMO” // LATIN

Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”

3. “MALO MALO MALO MALO” // LATIN

An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)

4. “FAR, FÅR FÅR FÅR?” // DANISH

Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”

5. “EEEE EE EE” // MANX

Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”

6. “COMO COMO? COMO COMO COMO COMO!” // SPANISH

Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.

8. “MAI MAI MAI MAI MAI” // THAI

Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.

9. “THE LION-EATING POET IN THE STONE DEN” // MANDARIN CHINESE

Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Words
'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Original image
iStock

Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios