Folium: Why Does a Word Sometimes Lose All Meaning via MentalFloss

Folium: Why Does a Word Sometimes Lose All Meaning via MentalFloss

Folium: Why Does a Word Sometimes Lose All Meaning via MentalFloss


There is a phenomenon that appears when a word occurs multiple times, that word begins to lose it’s meaning, or as Zachary Petit puts in his article “disintegrates” before your eyes. This phenomenon is called Semantic Satiation, or semantic saturation which is more formally described as a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then perceives the speech as repeated meaningless sounds. Try thinking about some words that could lose their meaning that many use in today’s society. Think about the word “literally” and how many times you see that a day reading through your social medias or blog posts. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “literally” as a term for emphasis when a statement isn’t true.

It is argued that repetition of words is because writers aren’t handling language with care anymore. Beyond “literally” there are plenty of other words that encounter modern communication whether written or spoken that are used too much to a point that they begin to lose their meaning. This crazy word phenomenon was first described in The American Journal of Psychology in 1907 that says: 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 the words proceed further until it is a mere collection of letters. Occasionally the words reach an extreme where the letters themselves look like meaningless marks on the paper.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

[Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.] via MentalFloss

There are multiple names that Petit mentions in his article that he says are results of a “mental literary fail.” Petit mentions a Professor named Leon James, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s College of Social Sciences. James says that Semantic Satiation is kind of like a “fatigue.” He also explains that 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. James says that any word can fall prey to semantic satiation, but the amount of time before words begin to lose meaning can vary. When we read a word on a page our brain immediately starts to correlate that word with the coordinating images or other associations of the word.

[Semantic satiation… Now say it ten times…] – Wikipedia

I like the final example Petit uses to express his concern for over usage of words by talking about “Black Friday.” He says “thanks to overuse, “Black Friday” is no longer the valuable hook it once was.” Black Friday has been repeated so much that it is now as indistinct as the packages of Kohl’s tube socks as they’re fought over the day after Thanksgiving. The phenomenon is very odd and can be hard to understand. But use the word “literally” and try to make that into a grammatically correct sentence and see how that turns out.

Julie Martin
LEAF Editor & Contributor