You know that weird phenomenon wherein you say a word over and over, and suddenly it doesn’t seem a word at all, just an unintelligible collection of letters? It can be any word — trilogy, say, or bunkhouse, or millisecond. You repeat it until your synapses stop firing or whatever, and you slap yourself in the head and say trilogy — wait, is that even a word? What is it? What does it mean?
Yes, that phenomenon. It’s so common it even 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 a term coined in the 1960s: “semantic satiation.”
Semantic satiation is defined as a phenomenon whereby the uninterrupted repetition of a word leads temporarily to a sense that the word has lost its meaning.
In other words, semantic satiation is what happened to most of us during the 2012 presidential campaign. For the better part of a year, media and politicians alike repeated the same words and phrases so endlessly that they became nothing but a meaningless drone.
I don’t mean the references brought to us by the candidates themselves and which became both overnight clichés and coded allusions: Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” or “self-deportation,” for example; Rick Perry’s “vulture capitalist”; and Newt Gingrich’s “first permanent base on the moon.”
I mean the whole lexicon of campaign cliché. The stylistic repetition of jobs, jobs, jobs. The enthusiasm gap. Game changer. Job creator. Changed the campaign narrative. Changed the political landscape. The Southern (or Midwestern) firewall. Doubled down. Unpack that statement. Hotly contested states. Battleground states. Undecided voters.
After a while, you’re just … numb.
Take (please!) the phrase, “the American people,” the most exhausted three words in the history of politics. They’re constantly, mawkishly, piously intoned to refer to what Americans want or need or deserve. Setting aside the doubtful suggestion that those pols speak for us in any case, what we seldom hear is the plain old word Americans.
At this writing, “the American people” are deeply concerned with a “cliffhanger” — the “fiscal cliff,” a term so common it’s seldom defined. And that cliff may decree 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 pols and pundits get the expression entirely wrong, and nobody notices. For example, a television reporter mixed the can with a political football and came up with “kicking the football down the road.” And another political reporter said that Congress might “kick it in the can.” I thought the anchor would say something like, “Hey, that doesn’t make sense!” Instead, he deadpanned that this wasn’t the kind of issue you “kicked in the can.”
Apparently we’ve reached semantic satiation with regard to “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 read and were told that the race was “tight as a drum” or “tight as a tick,” and its margins were razor- thin. Suddenly, in the last weeks, the terms tight and razor-thin became conflated, and the media settled on a new metaphor — now the margins in the presidential race were “razor-tight.”
And none of these speakers 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 silliest and 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. It’s just a dopey mistake.
Or, as candidate Rick Perry famously said: “Oops!”