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Smokers' corner: Words and phrases lose their meaning when repeated ad nauseam

Updated November 04, 2018


.— Illustration by Abro
.— Illustration by Abro

In 1986, I went with a college friend to what was called Panorama Centre in Saddar, Karachi. Panorama, at the time, was a ‘posh’ place with lavish offices and high-end clothing shops.

When we were about to enter one of the elevators in the building, the door opened and a moustachioed man emerged carrying a five- or six-year-old boy. They were followed by three more burly men who seemed to be his assistants. As they were stepping out of the lift, the child announced: ‘’Dunya gol hai [the world is round].” The assistants all smiled widely and clapped, saying “Zabardast, zabardast [Wonderful].”

After about 30 minutes of loitering on the second floor, we pressed the ‘down’ button on the lift. The door slid open, and out came the same posse. Lo and behold, the kid announced: “Dunya gol hai.” Again, the assistants clapped and praised the kid.

Words and phrases lose their meaning or relevance when repeated ad nauseam

Some 15 minutes later when we were about to exit the building from a glass door near a clothes outlet, we clearly heard it again: “Dunya gol hai”. It came from inside the shop. But this time it wasn’t followed by any claps or praise.

This irrelevant memory came to mind when recently I read Verbal Conditioning and Behaviour, a book by psychologist J.P. Das. According to Das when a word or phrase is vigorously repeated, it loses its meaning to the listener who then begins to perceive it as meaningless. In 1962, Leon James, a professor of psychology called this phenomenon “semantic satiation.”

Interestingly, though conducted decades ago, James’ work on the subject is only now being fully absorbed by an active service industry which, for years, underlined the importance of repeated messages. That industry is advertising.

Author and journalist Zachary Petit, in his 2015 article for Mental Floss, writes, “Marketers are rethinking their sales ploys, thanks to Leon’s ideas.” For example, the term “Black Friday” once held a unique meaning for shoppers, but, according to Petit, “thanks to its overuse, Black Friday is no longer the valuable hook it once was.”

Another interesting example can be the word ‘revolution’. In 1995, a journalist colleague of mine and I took up a project after noticing the frequency of the word revolution/revolutionary in press ads. We scanned various editions of Dawn newspaper (at the daily’s library) from 1950 till 1995.

Our findings indicated that the word ‘revolution’ was only sparsely used till the late 1960s, mainly for actual political revolutions. However, by the late 1960s, the word was frequently repeated by both, left and right mainstream political parties, and even some youth groups. Then in a mid-1970s edition of Dawn, we came across a press ad of a furniture brand that claimed its office chairs were made with “revolutionary Swedish technology!”

After that, we came across ad after ad for electronics, medicines, chips, chocolates, milk, cooking oils and detergent brands, all claiming that their ways of manufacturing were “revolutionary” (inqailabi) or fortified with “revolutionary” new formulas.

By the 1990s, not only the political context of the word ‘revolution’ had disintegrated, so had its marketing context. It meant absolutely nothing. It had reached semantic satiation.

There are three more words/phrases in the context of Pakistan, which, I believe, have reached semantic satiation. The first is “Islam khatre mein hai” (Islam is in danger). This was repeatedly used during the 1946 election in British India in which the All-India Muslim League was contesting to claim a separate Muslim majority country. According to historian Dr Mubarak Ali, this phrase was first used during the Khilafat Movement (1919-1924) by Islamic activists trying to resurrect the Ottoman Caliphate.

After the country’s creation, the ‘Islam khatre mein hai’ mantra became associated with religious parties who have often repeated it during various political and social episodes, such as Ayub Khan’s ‘secular’ policies, the rise of Bhutto’s ‘socialist’ PPP, the emergence of ethno-nationalism in former East Pakistan, the election of Benazir Bhutto as PM, the growth of pop music and concerts in the 1990s, all the way to the authoring of a National Action Plan (NAP) in 2015 and the alleged reforms suggested in the country’s blasphemy laws.

Not only has the phrase lost its meaning, it has come down to evoke a comical image of an enraged and contradictory cleric, foaming at the mouth. The other term that has reached semantic satiation is, “Pakistan aik naazuk morr par kharra hai” (Pakistan is standing at a critical crossroads).

It meant something when Ayub used it, after coming to power, because it directly alluded to the political chaos of the 1950s. It meant something when Bhutto used it in 1971, because East Pakistan had broken away after a civil war. But ever since Gen Zia used it to justify his reactionary 1977 military coup, the phrase has gradually lost its veracity. Almost every Pakistani ruler has used it, consequently detaching it from any convincing context other than one that has now become an unintentional self-parody.

‘Corruption’ as a word, too, has been overused. Ever since the 1990s, it has been repeated so often, that it now holds different meanings for different segments. In the 1990s, when it was repeatedly used by the PML-N, it meant the “corrupt PPP”. When used by the PPP, it meant the “corrupt PML-N” and now when used by the PTI, it means the “corrupt PPP/PML-N mafia”. When used by the PPP and the PML-N, it means the corrupt “electables” in PTI.

Semantic satiation is also a class thing. A friend was having tea at a trendy “dhaba” which was situated right beside an actual dhaba. Incidentally, both had the same news channel on their TV sets. My friend said that when a clip came on of PM Khan lamenting corruption, he noticed that some young people at the trendy dhaba raised their heads to casually watch, whereas the ‘working-class’ folk kept having their tea without even glancing at the TV.

Probably to them the word ‘corruption’ had lost its meaning. It had become insignificant background noise. A dunya gol hai moment.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 4th, 2018