Semantic Satiation: Why Words Sometimes Sound Weird or 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’s 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 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 sprang 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 other topics, 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.

Save Up to 80 Percent on Furniture, Home Decor, and Appliances During Wayfair's Way Day 2020 Sale

Wayfair
Wayfair

From September 23 to September 24, customers can get as much as 80 percent off home decor, furniture, WFH essentials, kitchen appliances, and more during the Wayfair's Way Day 2020 sale. Additionally, when you buy a select Samsung appliance during the sale, you'll also get a $200 Wayfair gift card once the product ships. Make sure to see all that the Way Day 2020 sale has to offer. These prices won’t last long, so we've also compiled a list of the best deals for your home below.

Rugs

AllModern/Wayfair

- Mistana Hillsby Power Loom Beige Saffron/Teal Rug $49 (save $97)

- Wrought Studios Shuff Abstract Blue Area Rug $100 (save $105)

- All Modern Lydia Southwestern Cream/Charcoal Area Rug $49 (save $100)

- Union Rustic Gunter Power Loom Blue/Khaki Rug $22 (save $38)

- Willa Arlo Interiors Omri Oriental Light Gray/Ivory Area Rug $49 (save $149)

Furniture

Langley Street/Wayfair

- Alwyn Home 14-inch Medium Gel Memory Foam King Mattress $580 (save $1420)

- Andover Mills Pascal Upholstered King Bed Frame $318 (save $832)

- Sol 72 Outdoor 8-Piece Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $650 (save $1180)

- Langley Street Darren 68-Inch Tuxedo Arm Sofa $340 (save $1410)

- Three Posts Tyronza Coffee Table $147 (save $193)

Kitchen

NutriBullet/Wayfair

- Cuisinart 11-Piece Aluminum Non Stick Cookware Set $100 (save $200)

- Rachael Ray Cucina 10-Piece Non-Stick Bakeware Set $92 (save $108)

- NutriBullet Rx Smart 45-Ounce Personal Countertop Blender $124 (save $56)

- Henckels Graphite 13-Piece Knife Block Set $160 (save $340)

- DeLonghi ECP3220 15-Bar Pump Espresso Machine $120 (save $90)

Electronics

Samsung/Wayfair

- Samsung 36-Inch French Door Energy Smart Refrigerator $3600 (save $400)

- Cosmo 30-Inch Freestanding Electric Range Oven $1420 (save $1580)

- Whynter 19-Bottle Single Zone Built-In Wine Refrigerator $380 (save $232)

- bObsweep PetHair Robotic Vacuum Cleaner with Mop Attachment $226 (save $443)

- Rowenta Focus 1700 Iron with Burst of Steam $68 (save $47)

Work From Home Essentials

Foundery Select/Wayfair

- Techi Mobili Adjustable Laptop Cart $50 (save $20)

- Foundry Select Arsenault Farmhouse Desk $210 (save $190)

- Symple Stuff Clay Mesh Task Chair $128 (save $121)

- Three Posts Salina Standard Bookcase $183 (save $617)

- Lorell Hard Floor Chairmat $52 (save $39)

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Duolingo’s Free Virtual Convention Will Cover How “Black Languages Matter” and More

Duolingo's mascot "Duo" will be in attendance, too.
Duolingo's mascot "Duo" will be in attendance, too.
Duolingo

Last September, a few hundred language enthusiasts gathered in London for Duolingo’s first annual convention, or “Duocon.” They attended panels, decorated cupcakes to look like the Duolingo owl, and generally celebrated their love of language. In light of the pandemic, this year’s Duocon will be all-virtual—and while that means you’ll have to bake your own cupcakes, it also means you can attend without leaving home.

The free event, which takes place this Saturday, September 26, boasts an exciting list of speakers covering a wide range of language-related topics. Participants will get a behind-the-scenes look at Duolingo itself: illustrator Greg Hartman will talk about creating the app’s cast of characters, for example, and software engineer Joseph Rollinson will discuss how he gauges the program’s effectiveness. Other experts will focus on the broader implications of language. Among them is Dr. Anne Charity Hudley, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies how the language used in classrooms can (often negatively) impact the education of students from diverse racial backgrounds.

Her talk, titled “Black Languages Matter: Learning the Languages and Language Varieties of the Black Diaspora,” illuminates the influences of Black language on American culture as a whole. As Hudley explains, it goes beyond common examples from sports and entertainment.

“There is no U.S. without the harsh and real legacy of slavery and strength that enslaved people had to create culture in a new place, in contact with those around them. So, the language and culture are embedded in how we think about the U.S.” she tells Mental Floss. “The big influences [are] in the discourses about what key U.S. concepts mean to us—like liberation, freedom, and justice. Black people taught the U.S.—and the world—what it means to have a history of oppression and still be proud.”

Dr. Hudley's Duocon lecture is a must-see.Duolingo

When you learn about language variations, you’re gaining insight into the lives of the people who speak them—how they “eat, sleep, learn, work, and create community and identity,” Hudley says. Language can also help preserve those traditions when you’re unable to actually practice them.

“One aspect from Black culture my students and I have been talking about a lot during the pandemic is the language of Black cookouts [and] barbecues. We can’t safely have [them] in person, but we can talk about them—and that language helps keep our cultural memory alive and our cultural practices intact,” she says. “What we eat at the cookout, how we negotiate who brings and cooks what (and who is even allowed to cook, as in: who can make the potato salad) are all culturally situated and negotiated through language.”

And since language is so intimately linked to culture, teaching someone that a certain word or pronunciation is “broken English”—and forcing them to stop using it—is a harmful way of separating them from who they are.

“A person is their language and their culture—colonizers knew this,” Hudley explains. “By telling someone their language was broken, it was a very effective way to colonize their mind and make them very quickly and effectively ashamed of their entire being. We have to make people aware of this process and actively dismantle it.”

Learn more by tuning into Hudley’s Duocon presentation at 2:10 p.m. EST this Saturday, which you can register for here.