With the Election Day a month behind us, there will be fewer chances to hear some words and phrases commentator Paula LaRocque would probably prefer never to hear again.
You know how when you say a word over and over, that word seems to lose all meaning? You think of a word — "catharsis," say — and repeat the word until suddenly it’s just a collection of letters. And you end up smacking yourself in the head and saying: What the heck is "catharsis?" Is it anything?
Yes, that phenomenon. And thank heaven it’s temporary. But would you guess it has a name? Actually, it’s had several—among them, “mental fatigue” or “lapse of meaning” or “verbal saturation.” But the label that stuck is “semantic satiation,” a term coined in the 1960s.
According to Wikipedia, semantic satiation is “a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then . . . [hears it] as repeated meaningless sounds.”
In other words, semantic satiation is what happened to us during the presidential campaign. That’s when we heard the same words repeated so endlessly that they became just a meaningless drone.
For example, take the phrase “the American people.” Those must be among the most exhausted three words in the history of politics. They’re constantly intoned to refer to what The American People want or need or deserve. What we never hear is that plain old word, Americans.
“The American People” was hardly the only overworked cliché during the campaign. We heard plenty about the “fiscal cliff” and the “grand bargain.” Those terms are so common they’re seldom defined. And there’s no chance they’re going away—the fiscal crisis and the action that could end it are both pending, and it seems that for once Washington won’t be able to kick the can down the road.
So maybe we’ll be spared the constant references to “kicking the can down the road.” Wouldn’t that be nice! We’ve had so much verbal can-kicking that speakers can get the expression wrong, and nobody notices. A TV reporter said, for example, that Congress might—and here I quote—“kick it in the can.” I thought the anchor would respond something like, “Hey, that doesn’t make sense!” Instead, he said this wasn’t the sort of issue you could “kick in the can.”
Apparently we’ve reached semantic satiation with “kicking the can down the road.”
Another case of hearing something so much we stopped hearing it occurred near the end of the campaign. All along, we’d heard the race was "tight" and the margins "razor-thin." Suddenly, in the last weeks, those terms became conflated. Now the race was no longer "tight" or "razor-thin" — it was “razor-tight.” And none of these folks noticed that they’d stopped making sense.
But the public noticed. Social media noticed. Google noticed. Late-night comics noticed.
And when the dust settled, “razor tight ” emerged as the campaign’s most memorable phrase. But is it an example of “semantic satiation”? No. Because “razor tight” doesn’t make sense when you say it even once— let alone again and again.
Paula LaRocque is the author of several books on writing and of a novel titled Chalk Line.