Sometimes after looking at a word for a while, I become convinced that it can't possibly be spelled correctly. Even after looking it up, sounding it out, and realizing that there's simply no other way to spell the word, it still looks wrong.

Is there a shorthand way to describe this feeling so that people will know what I mean without the long explanation?

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    It never happens to me. – Mateen Ulhaq Dec 4 '10 at 0:13
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    I was trying to look this up, too, and got semantic satiation. However, I remember my dad telling me that this was called something, and it was only one word, but I've never been able to hold on to it. – user17881 Feb 7 '12 at 16:19
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    Weird...the word weird always looks weird to me after a while. – Michael Brown Mar 8 '12 at 15:21
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    +1 Mike! Weird is a word that messes me up too. Wait... that's not right... It's "I before E"... Wierd... Werid... Wired... Werid... Weird... It sure is a Wierd sensation... Huh? – J. Walker Jul 28 '12 at 22:21
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    It happens to me a lot in sound as well; for example, after sounding out the word "loud" the other day, even though i knew it was right, it sounded like it wasn't a word and it was pronounced wrong. Strange... – Ian Sep 14 '12 at 20:14

10 Answers 10


Eureka! Ok, so it's not a single word, but it's what I was trying to think of:

Semantic Satiation:

Semantic satiation (also semantic saturation) is a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then perceives the speech as repeated meaningless sounds.

I also found a languagehat discussion on this topic.

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    +1: And how in the hell did you find that explanation? – Robusto Dec 3 '10 at 20:51
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    @Robusto: basically, it was a matter of knowing the phrase exists (dammit), and then trying various search terms in Google. – Marthaª Dec 3 '10 at 21:05
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    This seems very close, but according to the linked article, this is when repetition of the word causes disassociation of the word with its meaning. I think the question is about a related yet distinct phenomenon, where intense scrutiny (could be repetition, I suppose) causes disassociation of the written form of the word with the oral form (and possibly the meaning). I'm still voting this answer up though, because this term is so close and a pretty fantastic answer in any case. – PeterL Dec 4 '10 at 0:36
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    @Peter Leppert, I noticed that too, but no amount of further searching has revealed an alternative term with a meaning specific to reading (as opposed to saying/hearing). On the other hand, I think the phrase semantic satiation is flexible enough to allow both meanings. – Marthaª Dec 4 '10 at 0:43
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    I'd think that for the brain, repeating and intense scrutiny of a word triggers the same responses (probably causes the same stream of repeated stimuli of the same word/phrase, to the language center). Most of our senses work this way, repeated or constant stimuli causes the signal to decrease, if you stare at a fixed point long enough your field of vision starts to fade to gray, and if you sit in a room with a constant noise, it eventually disappears from your conciousness. This is probably true for higher level concepts too. – Stein G. Strindhaug Mar 21 '11 at 13:48

Based on this NGram... .. ...I'm tempted to suggest semantic satiation is a 'failed coinage'.

Personally I think it's misleading to imply the phenomenon is restricted to the issue of semantics in the first place. In my experience it's not so much that the word 'loses its meaning'. It's more a matter of saying that almost any word tends to become 'unusual' if you concentrate on it too long, even while you remain perfectly well aware of what the word actually means.

So given that Leon Jakobovits James's 1962 coinage doesn't exactly seem to have taken off (many of the later usages being simply references to his anyway), I think it would be better to call it

lexical fatigue (or saturation, as used in olfactory/auditory/visual contexts).

This at least has the benefit of making it clear that it's caused by form of the word itself, not the meaning (which may not even be particularly involved).

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    Then again, maybe it means that semantic satiation as a concept is becoming obsolete... – Daniel Sep 27 '11 at 23:51
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    @Fumble (a great insight) .. what happened is, people said the term over and over and over and then ........... – Fattie Sep 13 '14 at 11:09
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    Regarding "another coinage". "satiation" is wrong in "semantic satiation" because the effect you're referring to is not the satiation but that surprising "we all know that" effect which happens AFTER "satiation". So a better term is "semantic collapse" or a description "post-repetition semantic collapse" or perhaps "post semantic-overload semantic-collapse". regarding "lexical fatigue" I like it, but I wonder if ... lexical collapse is not more obvious and jingly? ("semantic collapse" is also not bad, and gives a nod to the academic who originally tried and failed to coin a term :) ) – Fattie Sep 14 '14 at 7:08
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    Further: I think "word fatigue" is, perhaps, the very best term. (indeed for me it is not really that the "meaning" (semantics) collapses - it's more like the word "becomes 'weird'". I personally would use word fatigue, or word saturation or perhaps best word collapse to describe the phenom. (You could say, using "semantic!" is an attempt to be scientific and specific, but in fact, it doesn't actually particularly capture what happens. Example: many report the "spelling becomes weird", they still "know what an orange is". So, "word collapse" is more general and correct.) – Fattie Sep 14 '14 at 7:10

The article on semantic satiation led me to the French term jamais vu, which I think I like better for a couple reasons. It seems to apply better to the written form as described in the original question, and also I find it more fun to say.

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    It's a great point that it is very similar or close to jamais vu. In fact, given @FumbleFingers astute objections to "semantic satiation", this is, indeed, the only actual answer forwarded on this whole page, and, it's a very good answer. Thank you! – Fattie Sep 13 '14 at 11:13
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    +1 I think you're right. Semantic Satiation sounds like it has more to do with meaning. The sensation that I think the OP is referring to (that I have had before) is more related to just the look of the word. I continue to know what it means. It just looks wrong. – David Woods Jan 19 '15 at 17:46

Based on Martha's accepted answer, I offer:

Orthographic Incredulity

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This is a fantastic question. I have often experienced that feeling. I doubt that there is a succinct word or phrase to describe it. I suggest you coin your own word and use it all over the place until it finds its way into a dictionary.

In general, when you say or look at a word too many times /too long the word loses the affiliation it has with its meaning. It starts to be nothing more than a group of noises coming out of your voice-box or a collection of alphabets arranged on a page. I had someone once describe the feeling to me as word-dissolution because to him the word simply dissolved. The brain has already understood and processed the word. Now it knows everything there is to know about the word, and has moved on.

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    I'm convinced that there is a word (or perhaps it's a phrase) that means exactly this, and I've read about it before, but I can't currently find it for the life of me. – Marthaª Dec 3 '10 at 20:00
  • @Martha, If I had more reputation I'd vote-up your answer! – S Red Dec 3 '10 at 20:55
  • I agree completely this is a fantastic question. Certain words, if you say them over and over, they become really "weird"! For sure. – Fattie Sep 13 '14 at 11:08

This is probably a self-induced form of aphasia or dysphasia.

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"Orthographic cognitive dissonance" might work. The conflicting ideas held simultaneously being that the word you're looking at is spelled correctly and that it's spelled incorrectly.

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I looked at the Wikipedia link that was in @Martha's post and it happened to list many names for this phenomenon besides the most popular one, "semantic satiation":

  1. "cortical inhibition"
  2. "reactive inhibition"
  3. "verbal transformation"
  4. "refractory phase and mental fatigue"

The link also describes essays and dissertations in which these terms are used.

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What do you think of "lexical overexposure"?

I'm pretty sure that no such word already exists in English. You'll probably have to coin a phrase. "Lexical [something]" to be sure. :)

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Note: <Semantic Satiation> is a different concept from what you're saying. It's saying that you use a word simply because you are used to using it, without any other purpose and without any reference to its meaning—words like <timestamp> (thinking of "stamp"'s meaning when saying it? likely no), <general>, <convention>, <convene>, <registry>, <register>, <working example>, <due>, <duly>.

But what you're saying is that there are words that are written in a way that simply looks out-of-place, at least to the parsing system of the beholder. This might be words like:

  • <thorough> (<through> may look proper)
  • <trial> (<trail> may look proper)
  • <corporeality> (<corporality> may look proper)
  • <weird> (<wired> may look proper)
  • <ministerial>
  • <heist>
  • <naive> (<naïve may look proper)
  • <reincarnate> (<reïncarnate> may look proper)
  • <adjourned>
  • <diaeresis>
  • <Nietzsche>
  • <doceng> [§]
  • <Lloyd>

You can refer to such words as <weiosr> (which itself looks out-of-place to the untrained eye).


Is there a shorthand way to describe this feeling so that people will know what I mean without the long explanation?

.By a phrase, <have a weiosr situation>:

Just then, I had a weiosr situation with the word <weiosr>.

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    Why would "wired" look or sound proper instead of "weird"? The two words are pronounced very differently. And what does doceng mean? The link told me nothing. It looks like an abbreviation, a shortening for document something or other. When I look at "doceng" and "weiosr", I don't have doubts about their spellings, I query their very existence and meaning. – Mari-Lou A Jul 29 '17 at 11:59
  • @Mari-LouA, It fully depends on the memory of the beholder. Eg https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/6170/is-there-a-word-or-phrase-for-the-feeling-you-get-after-looking-at-a-word-for-to/403295#comment148713_6170. ~~~ <doceng> is a name, like eg <lloyd>, <nietzsche>. These words exist and ain't typos, but the beholder may think they are wrongly spelt. He may """become convinced that it can't possibly... – Pacerier Jul 31 '17 at 12:47
  • ...be spelled correctly. Even after looking it up, sounding it out, and realizing that there's simply no other way to spell the word, it still looks wrong""". – Pacerier Jul 31 '17 at 12:47
  • I was talking about "doceng" and "weiosr" about being non-words. If they are surnames, then they still don't count. Dictionaries do not list surnames and their meanings unless they become eponymous, and are adopted as adjectives; e.g. Thatcherian, Dickensian, Hitlerian etc. Note too, that these words are usually spelled with a capital letter as too should Nietzsche and Lloyd. – Mari-Lou A Jul 31 '17 at 12:59
  • The phrase that you suggest answers the OP's question is "I have a weiosr situation". Sorry, if anyone wrote that they would have to explain what was meant by weiosr, that is not a short descriptive phrase for someone whose long-term memory (or sight) is playing tricks on them. – Mari-Lou A Jul 31 '17 at 13:07

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