It’s really astounding that we can look at these words without just seeing symbols so often. We usually read over words like little packages of meaning rather than looking at them for their individual letter shapes.
But, you know how sometimes a word is repeated way too many times? You just see a word so many times in a row. Just that same word, and then that word again, and the word again. Word, word word. And then, it doesn’t really look like the word “word.” It doesn’t look like language anymore. Is “word” spelled with those letters? Does the word even look like how it sounds at all? It seems like it should be “werd” maybe. It’s so small, like you could pinch it between your fingers.
That’s called semantic satiation.
It happens whenever a word or phrase is repeated enough times that it temporarily ceases to have meaning, or appears wrong or unfamiliar. It doesn’t need to be only in print, though. It can happen vocally, too.
The other week some friends were discussing tasseling for a project we were working on. We had considered making some tassels, but we didn’t know how to tassel, or anything about tasseling, really. So one person said she would learn to tassel and become a tasseler. The tasseler tasseled tassels, and they were beautifully tasseled tassels, too. But at that point the group of us collectively decided we couldn’t take one more second of the word “tassel.”
As much as people tend to resist this feeling, I think semantic satiation actually helps people to see words in fresh ways.
Familiarity colors our perceptions. It’s one of the reasons that cliches are discouraged in writing— we need our words to be vibrant and fresh, and some phrases are like houses we’ve lived in our whole lives.
There’s a certain kind of feeling to semantic satiation, like standing in the front yard in the summer, staring at your house, and suddenly seeing it the way a stranger might. The color looks different, and those old bricks have more texture somehow. It’s not near as big as you thought. Have there always been so many vines?
Gertrude Stein once wrote a line of poetry that shows the effect I’m describing:
“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
She later explained, “…I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”
Semantic satiation is frustrating and unsettling sometimes, but other times I find it to be especially interesting, like finding out a secret that gives you a new perspective on your best friend.
I once wrote a poem entitled “Girl” where my attempt at artistic repetition inadvertently semantically saturated “girl.” It’s a familiar word, because it has a lot of cultural connotations: baby dolls, pink things, smallness, fragility, innocence, and associations of that nature. But, looking at “girl” as just a foreign combination of letters, it transformed.
I watched the round, furry face of the “g” and that little “irl” like a tiny, mischievous tail. I realized that stripped of all my connotations of the word, “girl” was much more like a frisky forest creature with a curled tail that hopped around and hoarded small treasures, leaves, and bits of string. The word “girl” was a mythical creature, and what a fun one to be.
In fact, this idea of “girl” was much more in line with who I felt I was during my girlhood than any of the cultural ideas I had been writing about.
Next time you encounter semantic satiation, let the conversation go something like this:
“Agh! It doesn’t look like a word anymore!”
“Well, what does it look like?”
Semantic satiation makes us finally pay attention to the sounds and sights of words as if they were a landscape we walk every day on autopilot, but today we’re in love. I say the word “word” every day, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about it until I see it with new eyes.
Did I ever notice how the “r” looks like the “w” and the “o” looks like the “d”? Had I really tasted “word” with its drawn out syllable and the subtle, tart flavoring of my accent? Could I have squeezed the “wor” and let my fingertip rest against the thin post of the “d”? How would I have ever discovered that the word “word” was made to be pinched and eaten like candy?
At one point, a poet named Aram Saroyan wrote:
It’s controversial as to whether that’s really a poem, but just look at it. Have you ever paid so much attention to the silent letters of the word “light?” Have you ever thought so closely about “light” as a written word?
A friend and mentor of mine once discussed the poem with me, and pointed to it, saying “Can’t you just imagine swinging on the handlebars of those two gs?”
Semantic satiation lets me fall in love with simple words again. It’s a weird, sort of uncomfortable, hard to explain, confusing love, but that’s the best kind.