There’s a term for that…

Repetition has the interesting effect of making perfectly normal words sound like nonsense syllables.  Try it.

Prong. Prong. Prong. Prong. Prong. Prong. Prong. Prong. Prong.

Eventually, perhaps already, the word has begun to sound like gibberish. It will work equally well with almost any word.

Habberdashery. Stink. Elbow. Incremental. Blood. Gimmick.  There are a lot of available words!  I could go on and on. Try a phrase, like ecology college, and it will take on a new nonsense sound as if it were a single nonsense word: collegy

I’ve be aware of this phenomenon for as long as I can remember.  This morning, I finally did my homework.  If what I found is correct, there are two terms for the phenomenon: semantic satiation and semantic saturation, apparently used interchangeably, though the original term phrase used satiation.

The concept of semantic satiation was described by E. Severance and M.F. Washburn in The American Journal of Psychology in 1907. At the time, the phenomenon was called “lapse of meaning.”  The current term for the concept was introduced by psychologists Leon James (who at the time was known as Leon Jakobovits) and Wallace E. Lambert in 1961 in the article “Semantic Satiation Among Bilinguals” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Some sources say it was Leon James, alone, and that he coined the term in his doctoral dissertation in 1962.

The process involved in triggering semantic satiation is more involved than my brain can comprehend at this hour (even though I’m at my best early in the day…evidence my best is not good enough).  So, I’ll leave it to anyone reading this to explore the process on your own; feel free to educate me in the comments.  But I’ll go on with more interesting tidbits.

Among the several sources I consulted to come to my new-found knowledge of a long-known phenomenon were the University of Hawaii,,  Wikipedia, well-known for the inconsistency of information presented as fact.  I encountered a particularly useless bit of information inflow when I watched…in part…a YouTube Video that ostensibly addresses the topic. It didn’t work well for me.

With that as a precursor, I found it interesting that, according to Wikipedia, many examples of semantic saturation exist in popular culture. My favorite is this one:

In Edgar Allan Poe’s 1835 short story Berenice, the protagonist describes a mental state that induced him “to repeat, monotonously, some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind.”

There are many more cited by Wikipedia. Now, with my knowledge enhanced, I feel much better about making a second cup of coffee.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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