Repetition Repetition Repetition

One of my colleagues was noticing today how strange the word room appears when repeated ad infinitum. Room room room room room etc.

She is right; and it is not just room. Any word repeated ad nauseam will start to lose its associative meaning. It is a phenomenon known as semantic satiation. It seems that verbal repetition fires a specific neuronal cluster again and again, and with each successive firing there is a loss of intensity, so that before long the sound of the word in question ceases to conjure any associative resonance at all. At this point the word takes on an estranged, almost mystical quality (hence I suppose the power of repetition in chants and mantras).

I don’t know if Shakespeare was aiming at a similar effect at the end of King Lear (‘Never never never never never’); I don’t suppose five is enough to generate proper estrangement; however, an emptying of the meaning of the words of a truly nihilistic line makes for a satisfying psycho-semantic effect, at least in theory.


I was given the following exercise in repetition at school, I remember:

John where Jack had had had had had had had had had had had the best effect on the teacher.

Eleven hads in a row, we were told, could be parsed as a perfectly grammatical sentence, if punctuated correctly (clue: you need to use at least one semi-colon).

It is similar to the following well-known challenge:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

Here the play is on Buffalo (the town in New York State), buffalo (the animal, properly speaking called a bison) and the unusual verb to buffalo, meaning to bully.

Here’s the answer to the Buffalo buffalo. Answer to John where Jack tomorrow.

created for Wikipedia by Greg Williams

created for Wikipedia by Greg Williams