SEMANTIC SATIATION.

My pal Ken Robbins wrote to say he was “looking for a word to describe the psychological (semantic?) process whereby a word is drained of its meaning by mere repetition. Everyone (I think) knows the phenomenon. Say any word often enough and it begins to sound like…well, mere sound.” I’m pretty sure everyone does know the phenomenon; at any rate I certainly do, and I had vaguely wondered if there was a name for it, but Ken’s query prompted me to investigate, and it turns out it’s called semantic satiation, a term coined, according to that Wikipedia article, by Leon Jakobovits James in his 1962 doctoral dissertation at McGill University. So now you know.
Addendum. I’ve had to close this because of persistent spammers. I don’t know why a particular entry attracts persistent spam, but such is life. If you have a comment to make, e-mail me and I’ll reopen it.

Comments

  1. I have also seen the phenomenon labelled ‘jamais vu’ and the wikipedia article for that links to semantic satiation, but not vice versa. The latter, of course, has the benefit of being alliterative.

  2. I wonder if it’s related to the process by which, if you look at a page of a dictionary, it becomes to seem preposterous that (e.g.) any English words could possibly begin with qua-.

  3. Something similar in perceptual psychology is called neural adaptation, where the neurons responsible for perceiving, say, visual motion, become fatigued if you bombard them with constant stimulation. It’s possible that the same thing can happen to semantic neurons. There are some cool demos of the “motion after-effect” on the web that demonstrate the perceptual phenomena.

  4. It’s rather perverse to say that “a process whereby a word is drained of its meaning by mere repetition” is a case of “satiation” or “saturation” of any kind, whether semantic or otherwise. What exactly becomes satiated, and what is it that satiates ? Whatever becomes drained as a result must be something other than what becomes satiated, and other than what causes the satiation. For example, if I eat too many cookies (repetition), then I become sated by cookies, but it’s the cookie jar that becomes drained, not the cookies and not me.
    This “semantic satiation” business looks like yet another thoughtless exercise in the service of a correspondence theory of reality. It it today’s fashion to see word-correlatives not as objects, but as neuronal activity. Thus the WiPe article says

    rapid repetition causes both the peripheral sensorimotor activity and the central neural activation to fire repeatedly, which is known to cause reactive inhibition, hence a reduction in the intensity of the activity with each repetition.

    But, first of all, is it true that rapid repetition of any word or expression “drains it of meaning” ? Suppose you’re about to do something dangerous, and something cries out to you “stop! stop! stop! stop! stop!”. Is it the case that by the fourth repetition you no longer recognize that you are being warned ?
    Secondly, the idea that meaning is a function of the differences between words is at least as old as Saussure. On that view, nowadays generally accepted – and in contrast to a hydraulic theory of meaning as something that can pumped into or drained out of words – it should surprise no one that repetition fails to produce meaning. Except of course the meaning that “someone is repeating a word”.

  5. It’s too bad that “semantic bleaching” is already in use for a different phenomenon—otherwise it could be taken to describe the same thing from the other side: in satiation I am full; in bleaching the word becomes empty.

  6. (Another candidate which has not caught on: croquemitainization.)

  7. S. S. isn’t very good, is it? Let’s be honest.

  8. It’s rather perverse …
    My first thought also.
    It’s too bad that “semantic bleaching” is already in use …
    Already taken? I think it would be just fine, as would semantic depletion, and a few other similar terms. Compare and contrast grammaticalisation, of course.

  9. Huh. In that Trask work to which I link there is an ambiguity:

    bleaching … The removal of semantic content from lexical items undergoing grammaticalization, for example, in lexical verbs converted to auxiliaries, tense-markers or object-markers.

    Does “… , for example, …” (including the commas) belong with “lexical items undergoing grammaticalization”, or “grammaticalization”, or “in lexical verbs converted to auxiliaries, …”? (For completeness, does it belong with “The removal …”?)
    If the broad intention is to restrict the terms presented so that they only apply when there is grammaticalisation, this is no principled or perpensed restriction. The phenomenon, as described and named, can be isolated from instances of grammaticalisation or elsewhere.
    Still, semantic exhaustion might do, if anyone insists that bleaching, depletion, and fading are already appropriated. In the end, I’m for re-appropriation of what is ineptly applied by the first users.

  10. The phenomenon has been familiar to me since childhood, but I didn’t know what to call it until I read Catch-22, after which I referred to it as ‘jamais vu’. I came across the term ‘semantic satiation’ only about a year ago, and made notes towards a blog post on the subject, but it keeps slipping down the list.

  11. A somewhat different, but perhaps related phenomenon I have experienced is in reading where the same word is repeated many times in the text. After several encounters, the word begins to look as if it is misspelled, but careful examination shows it is correct. I recall having this experience reading a physics text, and seeing the repeated word “vacuum” begin to seem incorrect. Lexical satiation, perhaps?

  12. Somewhere, either in an article or a letter, Pasternak wrote about a more subtle aspect of this phenomenon. He refers to the passage in Genesis where Adam names the animals and “the word and the thing were one.” With man’s Fall and expulsion from Paradise this bond was severed and falsehood intruded into the space between. Pasternak considered it the poet’s task to put the two back together. Bulgakov also addressed this issue at the end of “The Master and Margarita” where Koroviov, finally released from his penance of being a fool, is revealed to be Faust–punished for having punned in his meeting with Satan. The pun, of course, seen in Pasternak’s view is a capitalizing on and a wanton playing with the tragedy of loss of meaningful discourse.

  13. @Henry IX: That would be orthographic [whatever], replacing the [whatever] with whatever people settle on as the second noun in the semantic compound. The lexicon is mostly independent of the orthography, especially of course where a language isn’t written.
    I offer “semantic fatigue”, meaning that the brain’s system of assigning meaning to linguistic input has gotten tired of the repetition and hence takes a break until something else shows up in the input. It’s good to know that this is called by a bunch of different terms, though.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Semantic satiation (or fatigue), a phrase I did not know, is not a redundant innovation. It has a different meaning from semantic bleaching, since it applies to a temporary phenomenon affecting an individual speaker under certain conditions: the endlessly repeated word is not deprived of its meaning for ever, for either the speaker in question or any others. On the other hand, semantic bleaching refers to a loss of meaning affecting certain words which the language, not just a single speaker, uses very frequently, and which thereby come to lose their precise meaning. Such words may lose their independence and become affixes, in an instance of grammaticalization. For example, the English adverb-forming -ly comes from a Germanic word meaning “body”, like its German equivalent -lich, related to Leich (original “body”, later “corpse”). Similarly, the Romance languages have adverb-forming suffixes deriving from Latin mens, mentis “mind” (Spanish or Italian -mente, French -ment). In both Germanic and Romance an originally independent word with a specific meaning has become a grammatical suffix which speakers use without having any inkling of its origin.
    Semantic bleaching also happens to words used in conventional social interactions, which become so common that people forget their original meaning: for instance, in French you can say Bonjour!, literally “Good day” to greet a person at any time or day or night; this contrasts with English Good morning/afternoon/evening which must agree with the actual timing of the utterance. Words used to express thanks are also often bleached of their meaning, as in French Merci (the original meaning was that of English “mercy”). There are many examples of this phenomenon across languages: even if the words are still recognizable (and the pronunciation has not been simplified), the original meaning of a conventional, socialy motivated word or phrase has become much less precise, or has been totally forgotten.

  15. There are parallels in other fields, for example repetition blindness and repetition deficit, which have to do with visual effects, and glossolalia and/or repetition of a “contemplative” prayer or mantra in a meditative attempt to supresss rational thinking in order to access mystical spheres or promote a mental shift from rational left brain to intuitive right brain. Maybe these are also the “vain repetitions of the heathen” in Matthew 6:7. The only word I have ever heard for the religious phenomenon is in connection with the Islamic practice of dhiker, or repetition of either the 99 names of God or “hamdullah” with prayer beads, although there are also prayer beads for Buddhists and Catholics.

  16. For example, the English adverb-forming -ly comes from a Germanic word meaning “body”, like its German equivalent -lich, related to Leich (original “body”, later “corpse”).
    Yes; and lovely to see it written of here. We have English lich-gate (and a few other compounds) from the same source. SOED, “lich-gate”:

    A roofed gateway to a churchyard, formerly used for sheltering a coffin until the clergyman’s arrival for a burial.

    There are parallels in other fields, …
    Yes. It is a pervasive feature of human information processing, worthy of general and sustained study.

  17. Marie-Lucie:
    Your distinction between semantic satiation and bleaching is valuable. Many sources support this application of satiation to “a temporary phenomenon affecting an individual speaker”. Here is a good one, which also supports the robust generalisability of the notion. This one confirms its temporary and individual character. But it does seem that bleaching and satiation are closely related – even complementary, or in a way necessarily concurrent. Again, it would be valuable to regiment all the available terms to dispel confusion, and for precision about what exactly is drained of what property, for what domain of analysis.

  18. When I coined the phrase “semantic satiation” in my doctoral dissertation (McGill U, 1962) there was already a phrase “verbal satiation” used by Washburn and Titchener around 1900. However mine was the first objective demonstration of a measurement of the intensity of reduction of meaning with repetition. I demonstrated that this meaning reduction was a general cognitive and perceptual and temporary process, e.g., it slowed down our computing time for simple arithmetic when numbers were repeated first.
    I also showed that this meaning reduction process occurs at the macro or societal level, e.g., reduction of popularity of hit songs as a function of the number of times they were played on the radio.
    I note from a google search that the phrase and idea of semantic satiation has been applied to new areas in the past forty years (e.g., advertising, music, neurosemantics, etc.). Today I still think that semantic satiation operates at several levels: universal, general, specific, and particular. I predict that future research in the next forty years will uncover many of these effects produced by cumulative repetition or exposure (words, topics, issues, objects, tastes, experiences, colors, etc.). Further there will be connection made to personality traits which I discuss in my dissertation as “semantic satiability” (people who for instance like to hear the same song over and over again (movie, etc.), vs. people who vary their way home because they get bored, etc.
    The dissertation is posted at:
    http://www.soc.hawaii.edu/leonj/499s2000/banaag/file48.html

  19. Man, I love the internet. Thanks for your informative comment, Leon! Here‘s a direct link to the dissertation.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    Sounds like a great dissertation.

  21. Great to hear from the author himself! The dissertation is clearly a weighty piece of research with deep implications.
    Scanning through it, we find three broad ways of applying semantic satiation and closely allied terms. The following examples are from the Word version of the dissertation; I omit page numbers, but they can easily be found by anyone interested.
    1. Application to words, numbers, concepts, and other “non-subjects”

    1a. The phenomenon of verbal satiation, the decrease in the meaning of symbols, [...]

    1b. [...] repetition of “nuka” should not lead to satiation of “canoe.”

    1c. It was hypothesized that semantic satiation of the verbal response which defines the concept would reduce its availability [...] At the same time it was expected that satiation of the verbal concept would [...]

    1d. Furthermore, satiation of “motion” should generalize the semantically related word “running,” whereas repetition of “sky” should not generalize to “running” [...]

    1e. It was shown that satiation of numbers in this manner [...]

    1f. [...] exhibiting “generation” of meaning instead of satiation.

    1g. Thus, words should show semantic satiation (as previously), while photographs and objects should exhibit progressively smaller satiation effects.

    1h. The more frequently a song would be played within a short span of time (i.e. it has high “saturation”), the more it would be subject to semantic satiation, [...]

    1i. Thus for two songs that have the same frequency value, the one which has shorter life span develops greater semantic satiation.

    1j. An experiment was described in which it was shown that verbal repetition of familiar words results in a decrease in the intensity of their meaning as measured by the semantic differential. This effect was labeled “semantic satiation.”

    1k. It was predicted that semantic satiation of the concept representing the common meaning element for a particular subset of words [...]

    1l. The results confirmed the hypothesis that semantic satiation of a number increases the difficulty of a computation task which involves that number.

    1m. In the present experiment, the C words were satiated after acquisition of the A-B list and prior to learning of the A-D list.

    1n. Words exhibited a semantic satiation effect while objects showed the opposite effect (“semantic generation”).

    2. Application (implicit or explicit) to human subjects

    2a. Studies will be described later in which we view “semantic satiability” as a personality trait [...]

    2b. [...] to determine under what conditions such repeated stimulation is constructive, as in learning, or disruptive, as in satiation.

    2c. [...] it is entirely possible that the relationships demonstrated here reflect the satiation curve of the disk jockey himself, not that of his audience, [...]

    2d. [...] the hypothesis of a relation between semantic satiatiability [sic] and success in language learning [...]

    2e. [...] with middle aged Ss exhibiting larger satiation effects than both children and the aged.

    2f. [...] that Ss who are prone to exhibit semantic satiation with verbal repetition [...]

    2g. [...] the problem of individual differences in susceptibility to the satiation effect (semantic satiability).

    3. Application that is mixed or vague

    3a. Karsten (1929) has measured substantial satiation effects of a line drawing task eight days after the last repetition of the task, and Wertheimer (1958) measured the persistence of satiation in [kinaesthetic] figural after-effects up to half a year after original inspection.

    3b. Finally, the product moment correlation coefficient between the degree of semantic satiation shown by each experimental S on the satiated mediators (CS) and the extent of inhibition shown in acquisition of A2-DS pairs relative to the A1-DN pairs was .42 (P satiation of the mediator is related to the degree of decreased meaningfulness of the mediator itself.

    3c. In the present chapter we have investigate[d] the role of semantic satiation in mass media and communication as well as the problem of individual differences in susceptibility to the satiation effect (semantic satiability). We have shown how a prediction concerning the role of semantic satiation in song popularity was supported by an analysis of the fate of Hit Parade songs.

    With the greatest respect to our author (and it was a long time ago!), the misgivings that colleagues Grumbly and Conrad have expressed and I have expanded upon appear to be justified. Grumbly wrote, for example:

    It’s rather perverse to say that “a process whereby a word is drained of its meaning by mere repetition” is a case of “satiation” or “saturation” of any kind, whether semantic or otherwise. What exactly becomes satiated, and what is it that satiates?

    There is clearly a complex of interesting notions associated with bleaching (or depletion, etc., of some quality from some item that is not a human subject) and satiating (or inurement, habituation, etc., of a human subject somehow or other engaged with those items). But our suspicions of unhelpful vagueness in the literature are confirmed. We philosophers take note of such things – don’t we, Grumbleton?

  22. You betchum, Noetica. I’ve been fretting that I won’t have time until the weekend to add a few considered thoughts on this notion of “satiation”. It’s good to have access to the dissertation now (thanks, Leon !) – I had found only references to it and to subsequent work by others.

  23. Could bloopers (lapsus) be traced to desemanticisation of words? Like, here in France, Rashida Dati said ‘fellation’ instead of ‘inflation’ the other day? Or minister Eric Woerth, who is in the midst of the l’Oreal financial scandal, saying he was using all means to ‘renforcer la fraude fiscale’. Words flow out of you without you really thinking if they are in their right place, and suddenly something different, from a different area of your brain where work goes on on something else, pops into that smooth flow without you immediately noticing?
    Great to have a study like this available online. Can I ask why satiation and not, for example, saturation? Satiation seems to imply ‘filling up to one’s complete satisfaction’ while saturation is filling up to total capacity, like a sponge no longer capable of holding more liquid?
    To me the most interesting bit is psychological typification of personal traits. However, in “semantic satiability” (people who for instance like to hear the same song over and over again, shouldn’t it be the other way round – insatiability (i.e. not getting enough of something)?

  24. Maybe it’s semantic ‘satiability, like Kipling’s Elephant’s Child’s ‘satiable curtiosity.

  25. Ø:
    ‘satiable curtiosity.
    Did you intend that t, or were you misprimed by some earlier rumination on kurtosis?
    Sashura:
    Those are tasty additions to the lanx satura.

  26. Noetica,
    For better or worse, the t is Kipling’s. End of first paragraph here.
    I am ambivalent about that t, but I left it in because it’s there. Ambivalent mainly because when reading the story aloud I have never been able to decide just how to pronounce it.

  27. Ø:
    Yes, it is a strange painting of the lily to insert that t as well as to omit the prefix in-. If we assume that Kipling intended it, we can make some sense of the word as resembling courtesy; but that has little logic about it, and it would be a phonetically unlikely substitution for curiosity. Is it one of those hardy slips that no one opportunely rectified, à la dord? I see from Googlebooks that some editions do make the alteration to curiosity; so far I find no adequate discussion online.

  28. It is true that the young elephant in the story was courteous to all, even those who spanked him for asking so many questions.
    But maybe it’s just that one of Kipling’s own children mispronounced the word and he liked it that way.

  29. I think it’s assumed to be a portmanteau. Mentioned here.

  30. Pasternak wrote… Bulgakov also addressed… “The Master and Margarita”
    off topic, but I thought it might be interesting here. I’ve read an article in ‘Znamya’ which builds a theory that Doctor Zhivago is, in fact, a literary reply to M&M. Bulgakov took ‘Master’ for the novel from the disastrous telephone conversation between Stalin and Pasternak about the arrested Mandelstam. Stalin asked P. ‘Is he a master? Master?’ Pasternak failed to defend Mandelstam, but Bulgakov does the defense, saying by means of his novel: ‘Yes, he is the Master’. (Master in this usage means ‘master craftsman’).

  31. (Master in this usage means ‘master craftsman’)
    I’ve often wondered how to translate Meister into English. Apparently the German professional training system has retained traditional features that have gone by the board in other countries. The WiPe on journeyman [Geselle] has this:

    In modern apprenticeship systems, a journeyman is a man who has a tradesman certificate that required completion of an apprenticeship. In many countries this is the highest formal rank (that of master having been eliminated) and allows them to perform all the tasks of the trade within the area where they are certified, to supervise apprentices and to become self-employed.

    In some countries such as Germany, however, master craftsmen are still educated (in a 3-4 year part-time or 1-year full-time course after they complete their apprenticeship), and every business that works in the craft still has to employ at least one master craftsman.

  32. I’ve read an article in ‘Znamya’ which builds a theory that Doctor Zhivago is, in fact, a literary reply to M&M. Bulgakov took ‘Master’ for the novel from the disastrous telephone conversation between Stalin and Pasternak about the arrested Mandelstam. Stalin asked P. ‘Is he a master? Master?’ Pasternak failed to defend Mandelstam, but Bulgakov does the defense, saying by means of his novel: ‘Yes, he is the Master’.
    So how does Zhivago answer M&M?

  33. In simple terms, Zhivago is Pasternak paying his debts to Mandelstam and justifying his behaviour in 1934.
    I fished out the paper copy of Znamya with the article and googled it, without success first, but then tried to search by quoted phrases – and it’s there. Read it, it’s absolutely gripping. (You may have to adjust your cyrillic encoding)

  34. Thanks!

  35. I believe what Wikipedia is trying to say is that the transition from journeyman to master is no longer one of continued apprenticeship. The USA, UK, Canada and Australia (as far as I know) do still have journeyman and master electricians, plumbers and gasfitters. However, a journeyman can work for himself and have apprentices. Then becoming a master entails some time as a journeyman (a year here), some education (100 hours here) and passing additional state certification exams.

  36. My birth certificate describes my father’s occupation as “bricklayer (journeyman)”, which apparently meant that he was an employee rather than working for himself. (Oh, all right, then – London, early 1950s)

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