“Semantic satiation” is the word used to describe the phenomenon by which repeated exposure to a word causes it to lose all meaning. It just becomes an abstract sound. A meaningless jumble of letters. A recent text exchange with a friend caused this to happen with the word “whelk”. Whelk. Whelk. What is “whelk”? It’s not a word. W-H-E-L-K. “Whelk”? Whelk.
But it’s not just through constant repetition that words can become meaningless. As well as overuse, there is misuse and abuse which can pollute our understanding of words, so their meaning gets lost. This process can happen very quickly. “Selfie” already seems to have slipped from being a photo of oneself taken by oneself, into just being a photo of a person.
That sort of abuse seems unintentional. That’s just people accidentally using a word in the wrong way. But there’s also the deliberate abuse of language. Words forced into meanings against their will to boost the ego of the user. Words which give mundane activities more significance.
One example is “curating”. By calling yourself a “curator”, you are suggesting a degree of expertise, of taste and refinement. A mere “collector” is indiscriminate, they take whatever they can get. “Collating” is just bringing together stuff. But I, noble curator, have a keen eye. I am discerning. I sort the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff. And with this superior taste I have developed with years of training, I use it to produce a listicle entitled “27 Videos Of Goats On Swings You Have To See Before You Can Call Yourself A Human Being You Wretched Excuse For A Man.”