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May I have a word: When a word just looks wrong

It’s happened to all of us: A familiar spelling suddenly makes no sense.

A word that suddenly looks unfamiliar might resemble the nonsense construction of a CAPTCHA test.AbsalomZenith/Wikimedia Commons

Last time I asked you to name the sudden feeling that a simple, familiar word seems wrong or alien. I had long imagined that few people experienced this, but when a correspondent, my partner, and both my editors said they knew it well, game on!

Two readers were quick to point out that a word with this meaning already exists — but they had different words in mind and different links to back them up. Emily Kline, of Roslindale, wrote, “I’m a psychologist and can share that the technical term for the phenomenon you are describing is semantic satiation.” Lisa O’Neill wrote, “I’m sure you know it’s already a ‘real’ word!” and directed me to an article from Smithsonian Magazine that deemed the feeling wordnesia.


I asked the Internet whether the two were indeed names for the same thing, but its response only confused me. For instance, a blogger purporting to explain the difference between the two described semantic satiation like this: “It’s sort of like when you accidentally squash a bag of chips and find them reduced to dust. Whatever they are now, they definitely don’t resemble chips anymore.” Which, as I said, confused me — especially since it was not followed up with a chips-related analogy for wordnesia. Anyone have one? Do tell.

My Internet searches did, however, turn up the fact that jamais vu, which means “never seen” in French, is yet another existing term for the phenomenon in question. But while it evidently covers what we’re talking about, it covers much else besides. A medical dictionary defines it as “the illusion that the familiar does not seem familiar. The opposite of the feeling of ‘dejà vu.’”

I found other alternative terms as well. But as I’ve been known to say, inietta.


My frequent correspondent Paul Angiolillo, of Weston, who earned bragging rights last time, wrote: “The experience of a common word suddenly morphing into random letters whose meaning seems to have evaporated could be the linguistic part of the brain having a bit of mischievous fun with you. So how about calling it a case of semantic antics?”

Sharon Cameron, of Peabody, wanted a word that seems wrong to be called a wrod. Which made me laugh — but I’m afraid it falls down on the job when you say it aloud.

Josh Simons, of Sharon, came up with perplexia, which seems to have exactly the right meaning — and please don’t tell me that it demeans people with dyslexia. I’d rather think it expresses solidarity with them, just as wordnesia expresses solidarity with amnesiacs and, for that matter, with Indonesia. Josh earns bragging rights this time. Well done, Josh!

Now Michael Czitrom, of Quincy, writes: “Given the recent rise in quality television available, many couples have their shows that they watch together, exclusively, always. But we are only human and sometimes we stray. Perhaps a word to describe this spousal television-series cheating?”

Send your ideas to me at Barbara.Wallraff@globe.com by noon on Friday, June 24, and kindly include where you live. Responses may be edited.

Barbara Wallraff is a writer in Cambridge, Mass., and London.