Thursday, October 18, 2007

On repetition (again)

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it not nearly enough. I like to repeat things. A pastime enjoyed by many children, AS and NT alike, is that continued repetition of a word or phrase intended to drive it into utter meaninglessness. Lunchbox lunchbox lunchbox lunchbox lunchbox lunchbox lunchbox lunchbox. What is lunchbox anyway? Is it really one word? Or do you have to write “lunch box?” I don’t know anymore. This is called semantic satiation. My mother said I would lose my mind if I didn’t cut it out. (I think she meant she would lose her mind if I didn’t cut it out.)

The opposite of semantic satiation is semantic generation, in which a nonsense word or syllable seems to take on meaning from repetition. Firkel has a meaning to me, but I can’t tell you what it is; there’s no corresponding English word I know of.

I have to wonder sometimes, following one of those days when everyone everywhere seems to be talking about autism, if something similar to semantic satiation has happened to the word. Words do evolve and take on new meanings, but something entirely different seems to be going on when large numbers of people are pointing to something meeting the exact dictionary definition of X and saying “this is not the real X”. A good word for this might be “gaslighting”, an attempt to make another person doubt her sanity.

Then there are the words which fall out of favor due to “guilt by association.” “Awareness” is one of those for me. It used to mean awareness, but now when I hear it, I expect something ugly to follow. “Autism Awareness” seems nearly always to mean “awareness of autism, which we hate more than cancer.” Not just individual words, but all sorts of ideas can be promoted from nonsense to apparent sense through frequent repetition.

If my meaning isn’t clear here, don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll be saying it again.


  1. "If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it not nearly enough."


    Good post.

  2. Not just individual words, but all sorts of ideas can be promoted from nonsense to apparent sense through frequent repetition.

    That was a major part of Hitler's Big Lie propaganda strategy, which Autism Speaks evidently has mastered.

  3. "My mother said I would lose my mind if I didn’t cut it out."

    The first time i read that, i read "it" as meaning your mind, and sat there puzzling over how cutting one's mind out would prevent one from losing it... maybe an unintential allusion to some of the nastier curebie practices? ;)

    Semantic satiation is a great thing - it can happen to any word. I remember doing it with the word "when" when i was a kid and spending absolutely ages (like, months) afterwards wondering whether there actually really was such a word as "when", or if i had just made it up... great way to screw with your head!

    Not sure that overuse of terms in the press is *quite* the same concept, but it's an interesting parallel...

  4. I dream in words that don't exist outside of my mind sometimes, I didn't know anyone esle experienced anything similar. Thank you.

  5. I think there is a shared aesthetic sensibility among many of us on the spectrum that focuses on repetition, and in particular on minor variations within a repeated structure or framework.

    I think it has a great deal to do with how we make use of the attentional and sensory bandwidth we have at our disposal. Art imitating life: the strategies we use to parse meaning out of sensory cacophony in turn drive our aesthetic preferences.

  6. I have been very busy with work lately and just got caught up on your blog.

    I think the last few entries are some of your most insightful and enlightened ever.

    'Hello, my name is straw man'

    That was made of awesome.


    ooops, I could lose my AS dx......talking about work....I suppose I should be unemployed instead of working late proofreading contracts. Hyper focus is an ASD payoff.

  7. Wasn't "Firkel" one of "Urkel's" friends on "Different Strokes"? If not that, then perhaps a Disney character?

    In any event, loved the Maxwell Smart lunchbox/lunch box.


  8. "Urkel" was on Family Matters; Arnold and Willis were on Diff'rent Strokes. Not that I'm paying attention.

  9. Evonne,
    Please get back to work. Pay her no mind, Joe. Urkel was the professor on Gilligan's Island.

    I still can't recall if "then" is a word. It's a bit like "hello", isn't it? Words that have somewhat "slippery" meanings to start with are especially fun to play with.

    DJ Kirkby,
    Interesting. I also dream scrambled words of text, nonsense writing that makes sense to me at first, but then I can't figure the rest out.

    Yes, this resonates with some of the ways repetition is important to me. Thanks for your insight.

  10. There's one that my son does that cracks me up... He's trying to say the line "I poured a bowl of Crunchies", but the way he hears - and likes to repeat it, is: "I poya poya poya poya poya Crunchies". Even though I taught him the right way to say it, he still prefers to say "poya poya poya", so I just laugh and repeat it along with him.

  11. That reminds me of how i always used to mishear the bit at the end of Looney Tunes cartoons when Porky Pig (who had a stutter) would say "Th-th-th-th-th-th=that's all folks!"

    I heard it as "Zick-a-zack zick-a-zack zick-a-zack SO-SO!", and thought it was the sound of the frame/portal thing (that would close around him as he said it) closing... and so, in my fantasy play when i was acting out going through holes between worlds/dimensions, i would use that as the sound effect for closing them...

    It was years before i realised that a) Porky Pig had a stutter and b) he was actually saying "That's all, folks" (it didn't help that i had no idea what "folks" could mean, never having heard its US English language usage outside of a cartoon - the only "folk" i knew about was folk music)...

  12. Urkel was the professor on Gilligan's Island.

    Are you being sarcastic or ironic? The professor's character's name was Roy Hinkley; the character was played by Russell Johnson. Urkel was from Family Matters.

    While I no longer publicly engage in palilalia, I will still catch myself mouthing or writing a word over and over in the hopes that a new, deeper meaning will come to me. When the word begins to lose its meaning, I usually stop; if I continue until the word has lost its meaning entirely, then I am always struck with a momentary panic that the meaning will never again return. I wonder how universal such thoughts might actually be.

    Thank you for giving me the name for it. Semantic satiation. Semantic satiation, semantic satiation, semantic satiation, semantic satiation.

  13. Sarcasm? Irony? From an autistic person? No, we really wouldn't know about that complex Theory of Mind stuff!

  14. Now, clearly, you are being sarcastic. I'm not sure if I should apologize for missing the joke. As an adult aspie, I have no problem employing a sly sort of sarcasm at times; identifying it from others is an otherworldly difficulty, however much I might expect it. I usually have to ask for clarification, even in the "real world".

  15. Ryan,
    Sorry about that second shot of sarcasm. No harm intended, of course. Though I could be oversensitve if anyone REALLY questioned my scholorship of Gilligan's Island!

  16. Semantic satiation happens with buzzwords, until they lose their meanings:
    • Synergy
    • Paradigm shift
    • transformational
    • democracy


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