Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

How to Make Your Words Meaningless

with 8 comments

There’s a really easy way to make any word in any language mean absolutely nothing – even children can do it.

I remember one time when I was young, sitting in the back of my parents’ car as we drove to visit family out of state. As we passed a road sign that showed the direction to New York, I said those two words over and over again to myself.

“New York. New York. New York. New York.”

And suddenly, I had no idea what I was saying. My mouth was making the appropriate sounds for “New York”, but it meant nothing to me. It was a jumble of silly syllables.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this is called semantic satiation.

This is one of those terribly interesting pieces of linguistic information. The bottom line is that words, by themselves, mean nothing. They’re a jumble of random sounds we string together. Only after a number of people agree on a unified sequence of sounds, and we all associate those gargles and growls with a particular meaning, do they really become a usable word.

Sounds without association aren’t words at all. So if you repeat a word a whole bunch of times, your mind hears the sounds, but because it’s out of context, it starts to lose its association. Suddenly you feel like you’re babbling with some weird language you’ve never heard.

Essentially, your mind has been inundated with the sounds so often out of context that it can’t connect those sounds to the meaning anymore. (Some research suggests it can happen with just between 3 and 30 repetitions.) It is just a temporary phenomenon, though, and the meaning returns pretty quickly, so you don’t have to worry. (I do still know what New York is.)

So why’s this so interesting?

Supposedly, this phenomenon can help explain why some hit songs, when played too frequently on the radio, die away very quickly. It’s an interesting idea that us simply getting tired of a song in some way ties in to how semantic satiation works, but frankly, I’d like to see more research.

Also, one researcher, Dr. Leon James, suggested that semantic satiation might be an effective tool in treating stuttering. Ideally, the repetition of words to the point of satiation would help the speaker remove negative associations, thus helping to remedy the stutter.

And it’s just plain fun. It’s an odd sensation to know a word one second, and then the next, have its meaning stripped from you. It’s like having something at the tip of your tongue, something you should know, but you actually tricked yourself into putting it there.

Really, how often do you get the chance to trick your own brain?

You can try it now. Take any word. Take “cantankerous.” You don’t have to say it fast, but say it aloud for the next 20 seconds or so. See what happens.

And just think, if this really works, maybe all the horribly obnoxious business speak we’re bombarded with will disappear sometime soon.

“Synergy, synergy, synergy, synergy …”

Written by Nathanael Green

April 23, 2009 at 7:44 am

8 Responses

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  1. Great post! I always wondered if this phenomenon had a name. Is repetition a requirement of SemSat, or is it possible for words to lose their meaning just by looking at them? I feel like that’s happened to me a few times, but maybe I’m just a crazyperson.

    Nick Hughes

    April 23, 2009 at 11:28 am

    • Nick,

      One of the pieces I read about it (link here), mentions that it doesn’t work if you repeat the word subvocally (just in your head). But it certainly does happen when you see the word written. Has it ever happened to you where you were retyping the same sentence or a list, and one word was repeated? It often happens there. I know I’ve found myself looking at word while thinking, “Is that how that’s spelled? It looks really weird.” Or it can just look funny and not make any sense.

      Have you had experiences like that? I imagine it happens a lot to graphic designers who can use words as much as a design element as anything else.

      Nathanael Green

      April 23, 2009 at 5:26 pm

  2. Speaking of “Semantic Satiation,” any bites on that short story of yours?

    Brian O'Rourke

    April 24, 2009 at 9:50 am

    • Not yet, Brian. But it’s making the rounds. And I’m also going to do some revisions and fire it off to a few more journals. I’ll definitely let you know where it gets picked up. And also … how about your short stories? Any coming our way soon?

      Nathanael Green

      April 26, 2009 at 3:15 pm

      • I’d love to do some short stories, but there just isn’t enough time. I feel like Ynyr in Krull after he’s visited the Widow of the Web.

        Brian O'Rourke

        April 28, 2009 at 3:07 pm

        • I hope you only mean that figuratively. He really didn’t do well after that.

          But, I guess that’s what happens in a world light-years beyond your imagination.

          Nathanael Green

          April 28, 2009 at 5:26 pm

  3. […] How to Make Your Words Meaningless […]

  4. […] I had a little semantic satiation incident with […]

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