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Jim Walker: When words look weird — you’ve got OI

Don't Take Me Seriously

Posted: August 26, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 26, 2011 1:57 a.m.

Did you ever have one of those days when you wrote or typed a very familiar word and it just looked alien?

The word seems to writhe on the page like a snake that slithered in there to poison your sentence.

So you check the spelling of the word, and are assured it is OK, and check the meaning, which works for the thought you were trying to express — and then you toss the whole experience off to some sort of reverse déjà vu and get on with your day. 

Well, you do.

I, on the other hand, might chew on this ponderous issue for an entire afternoon. And, actually, I did.

In so doing, I researched the topic and learned, first, that there is a field of study called psycholinguistics (which, I assume, is populated by psycholinguists, such as me). Beyond that, I found out that the opposite of déjà vu is jamais vu, “the phenomenon of experiencing a situation that one recognizes but that, nonetheless, seems very unfamiliar.”

Well, jamais vu or Alzheimer’s, it’s your call.

But the only term I found that is word/spelling-specific for this “it seems weird” phenomenon is “orthographic incredulity” (OI) — which I just love the sound of. And the acronym works as a word, itself, as in “OI, OI does that word seem so strange?”

So here are my top six reasons that words look weird:

Reason No. 1 — They are weird.
Take, for instance, the word “tongue.” This one always looks weird to me. It really should be spelled “tung,” and all the rest is sleight of hand that, if you let it happen, would sound something like “tun-gee-u-way.”

Upon researching the origin of the word, this all makes sense because, though it appears to be a French conspiracy, apparently, this word was Middle English (tunge), from Old English akin to Old High German (zunga) and Latin (lingua). If you get that many cooks working on any recipe, it’s going to cause problems. And, beyond that, it was probably first written by some quill-wielding monk who needed to stretch out the word to fill a line in some old parchment tome. So he tossed in extra letters as art.

Reason No. 2 — You looked at it too long.
If you stare at anything long enough, it begins to shimmy. This is no less true with thin lines on a page. Try staring at any of these words for awhile:





They soon appear to have too many letters, or at least some in the wrong places.

But the studiers of these things have come up with another reason for the phenomenon, called “semantic satiation” or “semantic saturation,” a “phenomenon in which repetition (or staring at it too long) causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning.”

Reason No. 3 — It’s your handwriting.
Personally, my cursive writing has gotten so sloppy that any word I write in cursive looks like it got wet. But even the perfectly written cursive goes south when you use the capital letters D (which goes backwards at the top), G (which looks like S with a tumor) or T (which looks like some kind of JT to me).

Reason No. 4 — It reads (sounds) like something else.
Take for instance, the word “absquatulate.” If someone said that to me, my first reaction would be to say, “You do, and you’ll clean it up.” And though the word begs to mean some sort of exercise routine, it actually means “to leave, in a hurry, under suspicious circumstances.”
Reason No. 5 — Chemical imbalance.
Your imbibitions of libations (or lack of sleep) of the night before have shorted out a few circuits. Drink some water and take a nap and then look at the word again. 

Reason No. 6 — Emotional loading.
Depending on the circumstances, seemingly benign words can take on hostile connotations that will make them shake on the page like a sidewinder’s rattle. Consider “mother-in-law,” “procedure” or “pregnant.”

And, finally, we close with a famous quote, which should make all us psycholinguists and weird-word-sufferers feel better.

“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” — Ernest Hemingway

Now, I’m sure old Ernie meant that in a much more profound sense than I use it here but, you know, it makes me feel better to think I have something in common with a, well, a really good writer.

If any of the words in this column, or even all of them, appear strange, it's orthographic incredulity on your part, not lack of ability by the writer. Comment at [email protected] or Twitter at DontTakeMeSeriously.


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