What Does Repetition Do to Symbols?

Road. Road. Road. Road. Road. Road. Road.

Continue to say road, or any other word, out loud for fifty, sixty, infinity times, or more. Something interesting happens: the word begins sounding weird, strange, foreign, fake, nonexistent. You don’t believe it’s a word with any discernible meaning, and it sounds like nothing more than gibberish.

You may have already experienced this before, but maybe you didn’t know that this phenomenon of a repeated word losing its meaning is known as “semantic satiation,” and it’s an occurrence that reminds us that words are symbols; they don’t contain any intrinsic meaning on their own, they transfer meaning.

So does repetition always cause symbols to lose their meaning?

Shepard Fairey, a street artist most famous for the Obama “Hope” poster, comments in Banksy’s street art documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, about how another kind of symbol, an image, can become iconic through repetition:

“Even though the Andre the Giant sticker started out as a joke and I was just having fun…I liked the idea of, the more stickers that are out there, the more important it seems, the more important it seems, the more people want to know what it is, the more they ask each other, and it gains real power from perceived power.”

This would mean that a symbol can also become more meaningful through repetition.

I guess (supported with lazy research) the difference between these two examples is that the meaning is lost when the repetition is rapid, occurring in a short period of time, as saying road a significant number of times in a row is different than the weeks-months-years span of time taken to reproduce the Andre the Giant Has a Posse image in public spaces.

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