Enough with the semantics already.

👤Joanne Campbell 🕔Nov 26, 2014

 Now that winter has arrived and put me in my place—which would be in my big blue chair in front of the fire—I have time to contemplate northern life. On this cold, dark day, while waiting for some snow to brighten up the place, I have come to the conclusion that…

You know how sometimes after you’ve read a word a few times it stops making sense? You’ve stared at it so long that its symbolic content has leached out, leaving a useless blot of random letters? This just happened to me with the word place. Here, try it for yourself:

Place. Placeplaceplaceplaceplace…  place. Place. Place. P-llaay-ss. Has its meaning dissolved for you yet?

Here are a few definitions to help bring it back:

The point in space where you keep your etchings, as in, “Your place or mine?”

The locale where your geographical sentimentality resides, as in, “There’s no place like home.”

Your position in hierarchical society, as in, “She sure put me in my place.”

Your mind’s favourite destination, as in, “I’m going to my happy place.”

And, of course, your spot in the universe, as in, “I lost my place.”

You can also verb it, as in, “Place your trust in me,” or “I can’t place your face.”

Place is a mighty word loaded with a multitude of significant symbolisms. Even so, repeated too often, it can become just another mouthful of plosives, fricatives and diphthongs.

It’s intriguing that such a fundamental word can so easily dissolve into meaninglessness. This phenomenon is called “semantic satiation.” (The Urban Dictionary describes semantics as, “the study of discussing the meaning/interpretation of words or groups of words within a certain context; usually in order to win some form of argument.” In my dictionary, satiation is defined as “being full of it.”)

Curiously, semantic satiation seems to affect not just hapless individuals but also whole populations. Repeat certain words or phrases in the media enough times and people will eventually start to disassociate their sounds from their meanings.

With enough repetition, words loaded with symbolism (such as democracy, transparency, world-class, consent) become verbal fluffs, whiffles of air that merely hint at their origins. At such times, it’s wise to hold one’s nose and reassess what’s really being said. The same talking points, cycled ad infinitum, will eventually cause the reader’s eyes to glaze over, with the information going in one eye and out the other. Clever, if that’s what you want.

There you go: semantic satiation, your concept for the day.

Bonus concept: The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon,* otherwise known as “frequency illusion.” You’ve probably experienced this one too: after experiencing a new concept or getting a new thing, you then see it everywhere. If you become pregnant, suddenly everyone is pregnant. If you have a pipeline, soon everyone has a pipeline. How is this possible?

It’s a two-part process: the first part is selective attention—what you unconsciously look for, you will inevitably see. Then, confirmation bias kicks in, affirming your belief that the thing you’re seeing, now that you’ve looked, has magically appeared everywhere. Things like the phrase “confirmation bias,” which co-incidentally (really!) also appears in Hans’ cartoon on this page. You can be pretty sure it’ll come again soon to a place place place near you.


*Coined by a chap after he heard the name Baader-Meinhof, an ultra-left-wing German terrorist group, twice in 24 hours.