Noticing New Words
January 15, 2005 12:43 AM   Subscribe

Language/Listening/WordFilter [mi]

Everytime I learn a new word, I start hearing it on TV and reading it (even though I never heard it before on a regular basis). People I've talked to say they experience the same thing. Their only explanation is that I'm paying more attention to that particular word because I just learned it and it isn't just some crazy coincidence. The problem is that I'm the kind of guy who has to look up every word I hear and don't know. If I'm to believe the explanation for this phenomenon, I'm inadvertantly ignoring words I don't know, which is something I have a hard time believing. What's really going on?
posted by zelphi to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm inadvertantly ignoring words I don't know, which is something I have a hard time believing.

Possible, if you aren't terribly interested in what you're hearing/reading. If you are, an unknown word, in a context where it is to crucial to understanding, will get your attention. The next few times you see it, yare probably primed to notice it, until it is assimilated.
posted by Gyan at 1:16 AM on January 15, 2005

I'm not a linguist, but I think that normal language includes a lot of replication. This allows new words to be learnt, and unknown words to be ignored without losing context. I'm guessing that you do the latter, and then, when you learn what the word means you start to notice. I have heard that a word has to be heard 5 times in different contexts for it to be given space and meaning in the brain. This is why children's books use the same words in different situations.

I've also noticed recently that there are words in my vocabulary which I don't know the meaning of which I use correctly and in context.

Language is an amazing fluid thing.
posted by seanyboy at 3:58 AM on January 15, 2005

Paging User #14404...
posted by davidmsc at 4:10 AM on January 15, 2005

At the excellent, they call this Diegogarcity: A term used to denote the appearance of another term in multiple sources shortly after you have looked it up in the dictionary (or first noticed it). It was coined by a fellow there who goes by the name of Aldiboronti.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:16 AM on January 15, 2005

Very interesting question!

This is a theory that is probably not my own but I don't know its name or origin:

When you learn a new word, it becomes a new entry or node in your semantic network. Think of your semantic network as an iceberg, where only a small percentage is above the surface. In the tip of this neurolinguistic iceberg are words that receive lots of activation because they are new and have all these raw connections within your network. Other recently activated words are in the tip too. They're on your radar; they're in or close to conscious attention.

This all has something to do with top-down vs. bottom-up processing too. To save energy, your brain processes a lot of things from the top down, filling in lots of easy rote world knowledge automatically. If you come across a word you don't know your brain may just be top-down processing and not bringing that unknown word into conscious attention. It fills in what it thinks it means from context and moves on. Because the word is new and still trying to find a comfortable place in your semantic network, it requires bottom-up processing every time you hear it (parsing the sentence to figure out all its semantic/grammatical permutations), thus more energy.
posted by kmel at 6:22 AM on January 15, 2005

I think this is a commonly accepted bit of human psychology. When I bought a particular car, I suddenly noticed and recognized similar models all over the place, picking them out from the crowd. Jeez, they were everywhere!

It makes sense: If you train your sense of pattern recognition to something new, like a new word or pattern, it's going to set off little recognition alarm the next several times you use it. This is common to learning almost anything new.
posted by majick at 8:44 AM on January 15, 2005

Yes, I experience this, and know lots of people who have mentioned it. It's like my father has developed this fixation around the number 311 after he was told it in a dream, and now he notices it everywhere. The reality is, 311 is everywhere anyway.

You will soon forget words, however, unless you actively try to remember them. For me, the best method is to look up the etymology, and then I'll remember it.
posted by wackybrit at 9:12 AM on January 15, 2005

I think it's a combination of two perception filters:

First, as many have said, you're more attuned to the word so you might notice occurences of it that would have slipped past otherwise.

Second, in the large, you remember instances when this whole process (which is a coincidence) happens — but you don't tend to remember the unremarkable times when you've learned a new word and not had some coincidental meetings with it soon after. So it seems like this happens disproportionately often.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:59 AM on January 15, 2005

This effect has also been known for a long time as the "Law of Fives".
posted by majcher at 11:28 AM on January 15, 2005

Okay, here's one:

A month or so ago, I got into a friends' car, and she said "I saw the coolest word today." I said, totally picking something out of the air, "Was it methylisothiazolinone?"

She almost passed out. It was. No joke. What are the chances of this happening? 700 quadrillion to one?

It gets better: Two weeks ago, I was in the kitchen, listening to the television, and there was a preview for "Law and Order", or one of the spinoffs, and one of the main characters says "What the heck is methylisothiazolinone?"

I almost passed out, myself.

Talk about odds. If it happens another three times, I can apply the Law of Fives, but twice is insane enough.
Can anyone explain this?
posted by exlotuseater at 11:36 AM on January 15, 2005

You like pie.
posted by cillit bang at 2:15 PM on January 15, 2005

The problem is that I'm the kind of guy who has to look up every word I hear and don't know.

You have to remember that there are different levels of "hearing" a word. If you've just picked up on a new word, it will catch your eye from the corner of the page more easily, or jump out from the background conversation somewhere. So sometimes, you would have filtered out the incident of the word - not consciously, but it just wouldn't have 'popped' forward.

Also, as wolfdog says, there are probably times you learn a new word and this doesn't happen, and you just don't notice.

It's possible that sometimes there's a bit of a zeitgeist around a certain word, too - that for whatever reason it does happen to get a little more action over a period. It makes sense with unusual but interesting words - if one person uses it, that will remind others about it, and they might use it too, and so there could be a little mini-resurgence of the word in a low-key way that you notice because the word is new to you.
posted by mdn at 3:29 PM on January 15, 2005

I've always heard this called "synchronicity".
posted by Succa at 4:48 PM on January 15, 2005

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