Repeating a Word Until It Loses Its Meaning: It’s a Thing

Yesterday, I was scrolling through the zillionth think piece on Gone Girl I’ve read this week, when suddenly, all I could focus on was the name Amy, which was (understandably) repeated over and over again in the article. Amy. Amy. Amy. Amy. Amy. Amy. Amy. Amy. That thing happened where the three letters suddenly seemed to constitute a nonsense word.

As it turns out, “that thing” has a name: semantic satiation, also called verbal satiation. Psychologists started studying it about a century ago, according to Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania who covered the phenomenon in a blog post several years back.

Liberman describes a study from the 1960s in which people were told to repeat a common word — like father — up to three times a second for 15 seconds. The participants then took a test meant to measure perception of a word’s meaning, called the semantic differential. It’s a seven-point scale, with two adjectives with opposite meaning at either end, and a zero in the middle. For example: good ___ ___ ___ zero ___ ___ ___ bad. In this study, people who heard a word and repeated it placed its definition closer to zero than those who said the word just once. This suggests that repetition of a word really does make us feel like a word has lost some of its meaning — we find it harder to place it in the context of other words.

But why does this happen? Simply put, when we get tired of things we stop paying close attention to them. Your nose does this with smells you’re around all the time, for example; the smell receptors in your nostrils stop sending those signals to your brain after a while. That could be analogous to what’s happening with repeated words. As far as names go, they can seem a little arbitrary, anyway, so it makes sense that they might be susceptible to the loss-of-meaning thing. Or, maybe Amy really is just kind of a weird word. Kind of like Glen.

Repeating a Word Until It Loses Meaning: A Thing