There's a Term for When a Word Is Repeated So Much It Loses Meaning

Word, word, word, word, word, word.

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It’s a very satisfying thing to learn that there’s a word for an experience you didn’t know could be described by a word. Learning that, for example, clinomania is an “excessive desire to stay in bed” and philocaly is “a love of beauty” enriches your mind and your vocabulary. Reddit recently united over this experience in its discovery of a phenomenon typically only spoken of in linguistic classes: semantic satiation.

As of Friday afternoon, this reddit submission defining semantic satiation had received 53,100 upvotes on the subreddit r/todayilearned. For the uninformed, semantic satiation occurs when the uninterrupted repetition of a word eventually leads to the sense that the word has lost its meaning.

For example, if you take the word ‘mushroom’ and then repeat it as mushroom, mushroom, mushroom and so on, the meaning will drop away and you’ll no longer visualize a bulbous fungus when you hear the word. Try it:

mushroommushroommushroommushroommushroommushroom

Some experiments have also demonstrated that it’s not necessarily even the verbal repetition that strips a word of its meaning — that’s a specific type of semantic satiation called ‘meaning satiation.’ In some cases, it’s simply seeing a word too often that causes its lexical definition to be forgotten. It’s important to remember that semantics is the branch of linguistics concerned with meaning and satiation is the condition of being full.

David Huber, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, examined semantic satiation in a 2010 study published in Cognitive Psychology.

Amherst explains to Inverse that when it comes to words, the loss of association isn’t an all or event — it’s more of a gradual process. He uses another phenomenon, called visual habituation, as a metaphor.

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Repeated words can lose their meaning.

Imagine, Huber instructs, you’re looking at a picture of an unfurled American flag and you stare at the lower right star for 10 seconds. If you then look at a white wall and blink your eyes, you’ll see an ‘afterimage’ consisting of a flag with black and green stripes and black stars against a yellow rectangle. However, if you don’t do that and simply look at the flag for a split second, the afterimage will be weaker or the after image will simply look the same.

“Our experimental results suggest that a similar sort of neural habituation explains semantic satiation, except that in this case, the habituation is not for the colors of a flag but rather for the meaning of a word,” Huber says. “How quickly this satiation occurs will depend both on how many times the word is repeated (by analogy, how long you stare at the flag) and also the extent to which you pay attention while repeating the word (by analogy, how consistently you keep your eyes fixated on the lower right star).”

Eva Wittenberg, Ph.D., a linguistics professor at the University of California, San Diego, theorizes that the more transparent the morphology, the less likely satiation effects will occur.

“English is pretty boring when it comes to morphology,” Wittenberg tells Inverse. “In English, words aren’t manipulated very often.”

A definition of semantics.

That’s because words frequently consist of two parts. Blackberry, for example, contains two grammatical units, which are technically known as morphemes. ‘Black’ and ‘berry’ are both transparent in their meaning — we know what each of those words means individually — so they are called transparent morphemes. The ‘cran’ in cranberry, meanwhile, is a meaningless unit. And because it’s meaningless, Wittenberg reasons that it’s likely that a word like ‘cranberry’ would lose its meaning after repetition than a word like ‘blackberry.’

Huber points out that, by understanding what underlies semantic satiation, scientists can explore the deeper question of how do we think. He says his study was less of a study of words, and more a test of the general theory of perceptual processing. This theory proposes that neural habituation is a trick of a brain that helps us make sense of a current situation with minimal interference from things that have happened in the recent past. If the same lexical representation (a word) is used to repeatedly retrieve an associated meaning (the definition), it’s less confusing for the brain to just drop the meaning and let the word exist as a nonfactor.

“I’m glad that we suffer from semantic satiation and other forms of neural habituation,” Huber says, “because if we did not, the world would be a confusing jumble, blurring everything together that recently happened with the current situation.”