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Semantic satiation is a phenomenon whereby the uninterrupted repetition of a word eventually leads to a sense that the word has lost its meaning. This effect is also known as semantic saturation or verbal satiation.
The concept of semantic satiation was described by E. Severance and M.F. Washburn in The American Journal of Psychology in 1907. The term was introduced by psychologists Leon James and Wallace E. Lambert in the article "Semantic Satiation Among Bilinguals" in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (1961).
For most people, the way they've experience semantic satiation is in a playful context: deliberately repeating a single word over and over again just to get to that sensation when it stops feeling like an actual word. However, this phenomenon can appear in more subtle ways. For instance, writing teachers will often insist that students use repeated words with care, not just because it demonstrates a better vocabulary and a more eloquent style, but to avoid the loss of significance. Overuse of "strong" words, such as words with intense connotations or profanity, can also fall victim to semantic satiation and lose their intensity.
See Examples and Observations below. For related concepts, also see:
Examples and Observations
- "I began to indulge in the wildest fancies as I lay there in the dark, such as that there was no such town, and even that there was no such state as New Jersey. I fell to repeating the word 'Jersey' over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into."
(James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times, 1933)
- "Have you ever tried the experiment of saying some plain word, such as 'dog,' thirty times? By the thirtieth time it has become a word like 'snark' or 'pobble.' It does not become tame, it becomes wild, by repetition."
(G.K. Chesterton, "The Telegraph Poles." Alarms and Discursions, 1910)
- A Closed Loop
"If we pronounce a word over and over again, rapidly and without pause, then the word is felt to lose meaning. Take any word, say, CHIMNEY. Say it repeatedly and in rapid succession. Within some seconds, the word loses meaning. This loss is referred to as 'semantic satiation.' What seems to happen is that the word forms a kind of closed loop with itself. One utterance leads into a second utterance of the same word, this leads into a third, and so on… After repeated pronunciation, this meaningful continuation of the word is blocked since, now, the word leads only to its own recurrence."
(I.M.L. Hunter, Memory, rev. ed. Penguin, 1964)
- The Metaphor
"'Semantic satiation' is a metaphor of sorts, of course, as if neurons are little creatures to be filled up with the word until their little bellies are full, they are sated and want no more. Even single neurons habituate; that is, they stop firing to a repetitive pattern of stimulation. But semantic satiation affects our conscious experience, not just individual neurons."
(Bernard J. Baars, In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind. Oxford University Press, 1997)
- Disconnection of Signifier and Signified
- "If you stare continuously at a word (alternatively, listen to it over and over), the signifier and signified eventually appear to fall apart. The aim of the exercise is not to alter vision or hearing but to disrupt the internal organization of the sign… You continue to see the letters but they no longer make the word; it, as such, has vanished. The phenomenon is called 'semantic satiation' (first identified by Severance & Washburn 1907), or loss of the signified concept from the signifier (visual or acoustic)."
(David McNeill, Gesture and Thought. University of Chicago Press, 2005)
- "By saying a word, even a significant one, over and over again… you will find that the word has been transformed into a meaningless sound, as repetition drains it of its symbolic value. Any male who has served in, let us say, the United States Army or spent time in a college dormitory has had this experience with what are called obscene words… Words that you have been taught not to use and that normally evoke an embarrassed or disconcerted response, when used too often, are stripped of their power to shock, to embarrass, to call attention to a special frame of mind. They become only sounds, not symbols."
(Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
"Why has my father's death left me feeling so alone, when he hasn't been a part of my life in seventeen years? I'm an orphan. I repeat the word out loud, over and over again, listening to it bounce off the walls of my childhood bedroom until it makes no sense.
"Loneliness is the theme, and I play it like a symphony, in endless variations."
(Jonathan Tropper, The Book of Joe. Random House, 2004)
- Boswell on the Effects of "Intense Inquiry" (1782)
"Words, the representations, or rather signs of ideas and notions in the human race, though habitual to all of us, are, when abstractly considered, exceedingly wonderful; in so much, that by endeavouring to think of them with a spirit of intense inquiry, I have been affected even with giddiness and a kind of stupor, the consequence of having one's faculties stretched in vain. I suppose this has been experienced by many of my readers, who in a fit of musing, have tried to trace the connection between a word of ordinary use and its meaning, repeating the word over and over again, and still starting in a kind of foolish amazement, as if listening for information from some secret power in the mind itself."
(James Boswell "The Hypochondriack", "On Words." The London Magazine, or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 51, February 1782)