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The rhubarb phenomenon

Q: Is there a term for the phenomenon of a word sounding completely nonsensical when you say it over and over again? That happens for me with the word “only.” I’d be interested if you folks have had the same experience.

A: Yes, we too have had this experience. After we repeatedly think, speak, or look at a word—say, “rhubarb”—it becomes gibberish.

This phenomenon isn’t new. James Boswell wrote about it in the 18th century, Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th, and James Thurber in the 20th.

In his memoir My Life and Hard Times (1933), Thurber recalls lying in bed, racking his brain in an attempt to remember the name Perth Amboy, the city in New Jersey:

“I fell to repeating the word ‘Jersey’ over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into.”

A common term for this experience is “semantic satiation,” a phrase used by the psychologist Leon Jakobovits James in his 1962 doctoral dissertation. Other terms are “semantic saturation” and “verbal satiation.” (We might add “the rhubarb phenomenon.”)  

In his paper,  “Effects of Repeated Stimulation on Cognitive Aspects of Behavior: Some Experiments on the Phenomenon of Semantic Satiation,” James describes experiments testing subjects’ responses to repeated words, numbers, concepts, and so on.

He concludes, among other things, that “Repeated presentation of verbal stimuli results in a decrease of their meaning.”

What this means is that with enough repetition, “rhubarb”  becomes a meaningless collection of letters or sounds.

In 2010, many years after writing his dissertation, James contributed a few comments to a discussion of semantic satiation on the website Language Hat.

James wrote that his dissertation “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,” he said.

He said the paper 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.),” he added. “Today I still think that semantic satiation operates at several levels: universal, general, specific, and particular.”

He predicted that 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,” he said, “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.”

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