If you have nothing better to do on a Sunday, consider the word “day.” Day is a common word. Today is a day, even if it’s not Sunday. Have you had a good day? Do you know how to spell d-a-y? What are you doing today? What day is it? Day? Day? DAY?
By now, you’ve probably forgotten what “day” means. I only printed it eleven times in that first paragraph, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t many repetitions. Consider that schools used to, and maybe still do, punish children by making them write and re-write the same word or line a hundred times. But your brain is already impatient and ready to drop “day” from the dictionary. What makes that three-letter word is so abhorrent?
This is an example of semantic satiation — that is, repetition of a word until it becomes meaningless. If you continued to write or look at the word “day,” it would lose its meaning completely until the letter disintegrated into squiggles. You’d have to take a break from reading the word to coax its meaning back, and even then, you might find yourself heartily sick of it. Semantic satiation can occur whether a word is repeated by itself (“day, day, day”) or mixed into sentences (“Have you had a good day? Do you know how to spell day?”).
It’s not often that writers have a chance to play psychological tricks on their readers. It’s also not often that I have a twisty take on Shakespeare. But today’s your lucky day, and you get both!
If you’ve ever read King Lear, you’re probably familiar with a character named Edmund. He had an unfortunate upbringing. His father, Gloucester, claims to love both his sons equally, but he can’t seem to stop himself from letting the world know that Edmund is only worth about half a son. In fact, Edmund is an illegitimate who his father “[blushes] to acknowledge.” Not only does Gloucester tell his friend this in uncomfortable detail, but he says it all while Edmund is watching. Just standing there. Watching. Listening to his father tell the unhappy story of how he came about.
Think that would make for a messed-up childhood? So does Edmund. With predictable bitterness, Edmund expresses frustration that his father would claim to love him and his brother equally, but give the entire estate and title to his brother while denouncing him publicly as lesser in rank and value. In the next scene, Edmund gives one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare’s works. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word, legitimate.
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’ legitimate.
There it is — legitimate. Repeated five times over a few short lines. This is a startling example of semantic satiation used not as a party trick, but as a literary device that creates a parallel between the reader and the speaking character.
For Edmund, being “legitimate” is nothing but a social construct (or, as he more poetically calls it, the “plague of custom”). “Legitimate” is a valueless word that has been written into the national law, but was never part of the natural order. It has no meaning. It has been thrown at him repeatedly by his own father as a badly constructed reason why he must always remain subordinate to his younger brother. Legitimate, legitimate, legitimate — your brother is a legitimate, and you are not. The word has been so over-used that it has lost all meaning. Remarkably, this is exactly what has happened to you as a reader. At the end of Edmund’s passionate speech, you understand him and his motivations because you are, in a literal sense, experiencing what he has experienced all his life. Semantic satiation ensures that “legitimate” no longer has much meaning for you, either.
Given Edmund’s despicable character and the horrific treachery he commits mere moments later, it is remarkable that Shakespeare can get his readers to empathize with Edmund even for a few seconds. More remarkable still is the fact that he does it with a little psychological trick that would not be identified and named for hundreds of years — and that trick is nothing but the simple repetition of a word.
So, you’ll say, Shakespeare was a master before his time. That’s common knowledge. But what does this mean for today’s writers?
Repetition is a powerful tool, not to be used lightly. First, avoid using semantic satiation unintentionally. If you use the word “excited” in one line, for example, think twice before you use it again in the next. Repetition creates emphasis, so make sure it’s emphasizing the thing you want the reader to know. Second, use semantic satiation to your advantage. Is your character fed up with something? Repeat, repeat, repeat it. Is someone nagging them? Repeat the sentence or word they hate the most. Is your character constantly hearing the same insult? Repeat it. Over and over, until you and your reader are both sick of it. That’s how you teach a reader to empathize with a character.
Just remember the two rules of semantic satiation:
- It only works with single words or very short phrases.
- It only works if the repetitions are not far apart.