My first friend in college was a kid named Dylan who wore swim trunks to class, listened to a lot of Sublime and 311 and smoked pot out of a hookah pipe in his garage. He’d enrolled in order to play for the school’s baseball team, which had a pretty good record of turning DIII standouts into minor leaguers, but his academic interests (no offense to other Physical Therapy majors out there) didn’t go much further than learning how to stretch the calves. He was a fine fellow, and we enjoyed each other’s company mostly because we had nothing in common and therefore everything to learn from each other. I shared my interest in Thurber cartoons; he taught me how to talk to girls (turns out you don’t say anything, just smile at them long enough until they ask you what you’re looking at). But one day in an intro to sociology class, I noticed him furiously filling out a notebook. At a break in the action, I leaned over and asked what he was on to. “Practicing,” he said. He handed me the notebook, and in three pages of perfect script, he’d written his autograph over and over and over.
This is awesome on multiple levels, but the one most relevant to this column is the way those pages of autographs relate to a phenomenon called semantic satiation. In 1907, two psychologists named E. Severance and M.F. Washburn wrote in the Journal of American Psychology,
“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 proceeds further until the word is a mere collection of letters, and occasionally reaches the extreme where the letters themselves look like meaningless marks on the paper.”
The above passage is quoted in a 1962 doctoral thesis by Leon Jacobovitz James, half of the duo (along with Wallace Lambert) who coined the term “semantic satiation” a year earlier in the Journal of American Psychology. Their experiments, using what’s called Osgood’s semantic differential, determined that “words that evoke intense affective responses,” when said repeatedly to oneself, lose their intensity ratings. After decades of academic bickering over the semantics of “semantics” (vs., say, “perception”), the conclusion today is that semantic satiation is indeed valid, and it works for pretty much any word. Bologna. Snorkel. Toyota Corolla. Say something over and over and it morphs into meaningless sound.
Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio program A Way with Words (and my boss), described this on a recent episode as the equivalent of what he calls the Gnarly Foot. Take off your sock, stare at your foot for a couple minutes, and you’ll start to wonder how something so strange could be attached to your body. When it starts to get uncomfortable, just resume saying bologna over and over, and that should redirect your confusion.
The effects of semantic satiation, if you’ll allow my liberal generosity, are both wonderfully and terrifyingly widespread. It’s perhaps the root of clichés, especially political clichés. If a congressman stood up and said they supported liberty and freedom, would you have any idea what they were talking about? The press, especially in the age of Twitter and 24-hour cable news, surely provokes semantic satiation. Does “Breaking News” mean anything? Daily Show monologues couldn’t exist without the absurd montages of 10 news anchors saying Snowquester. Clarity and accuracy are obviously concerns of their own when it comes to word choice, but the prospect of losing meaning through repetition ought to be a spur to writers and speakers looking to have an impact.
That said, semantic satiation has its upsides. Rock bands will let a fuzzy guitar drone and repeat one lyric over and over for a reason — it’s transient as shit. And the fact that a word’s meaning can be drained through repetition is a glorious knock against those who hold essentialist views about language or uphold any kind of ethnocentric language hierarchies.
I still have my friend Dylan’s sheet of autographs in a folder in my closet. I held onto it thinking that one day he’d make it to the bigs, but the last time I spoke with him, it was freshman year and he’d dropped out after one semester to return to the garage. For all I know, he’s still in there, getting stoned and staring at his foot, laughing.