Word Salad

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Word Salad
Douglas Robinson observes that "the line separating 'rational speech' from word-salad is exceedingly thin and impossible to pin down—precisely because we do not have in our brains the kind of 'central meaner' or thought-thinker that rationalist philosophy has wanted both to posit in theory and create in practice" (Who Translates?: Translator Subjectivities Beyond Reason, 2001).

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The metaphorical expression word salad (or word-salad) refers to the practice of stringing together words that have no apparent connection to one another—an extreme case of jumbled speech or disorderly writing. Also called (in psychology) paraphrasia.

Psychiatric clinicians use the term word salad to refer to a rare form of disorganized speech—"a group of neologisms," according to Robert Jean Campbell. "They are meaningless until the patient discusses the neologisms at length, thus revealing their underlying significance. It is a coded language, not unlike dreams in principle; the patient holds the table to the code and only he can provide meanings to the otherwise incomprehensible dialect" (Campbell's Psychiatric Dictionary, 2009).

Examples and Observations

  • "[Psychiatrist Eugen] Bleuler described the relatively high frequency of indirect, oblique, or remote, associations in schizophrenic patients. This type of association, observed either in spontaneous speech or in the word-association test, goes from one word to another word via a not overtly spoken intermediate word. One of Bleuler's examples is wood-dead cousin. At first glance, this association appears to be a complete word salad. However, if you know that a cousin of the patient had died recently and was buried in a wooden coffin, it becomes obvious that this was, in fact, an indirect association, from wood to wooden coffin to dead cousin."
    (Manfred Spitzer, The Mind Within the Net: Models of Learning, Thinking, and Acting. MIT, 1999)
  • "Neologistic and semantic jargon are the primary components of a schizophrenic language output that has been termed word salad, an apt phrase for the mixture of misused linguistic features produced by the schizophrenic subject. Much more often, however, word salad is based on brain damage (Benson, 1979a)."
    (D. Frank Benson and Alfredo Ardila, Aphasia: A Clinical Perspective. Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."
    (Linguist Noam Chomsky created this sentence--which is grammatically correct but incomprehensible--to demonstrate that the rules governing syntax are distinct from the meanings words convey.)
  • "When there are recognizable words but no one else can make sense of them, they call it 'word salad.' No one ever thinks to call it music."
    (Susan Neville, Indiana Winter. Indiana University Press, 1994)
  • "How nice it'd be to come home to her
    and sit by the fireplace and she in the kitchen
    aproned young and lovely wanting my baby
    and so happy about me she burns the roast beef
    and comes crying to me and I get up from my big papa chair
    saying Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!
    God what a husband I'd make!"
    (Gregory Corso, "Marriage")

Word Salads and Creative Writing

"The next key characteristic of schizophrenia was the tendency toward 'word salad.' There was an example, a rambling block quotation that strung together a grandmother's death, sunlight, dinner, and cats that didn't exist, interspersed with inappropriate laughter. Again not my mother. Again more like me. 'Word salad' was the exact name of a writing exercise I gave my students at the beginning of the year. In a piece of writing, those moves from death to dinner could be crucial, heartbreaking.

"I opened a fat gray volume titled Schizophrenia. I found a chart that listed the warning signs of the disease: birth complications, separation from parents, withdrawn behavior, emotional unpredictability, poor peer relations, solo play. One could also consider this the recipe for becoming an artist, a writer."
(Heather Sellers, You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness. Riverhead Books, 2010)

Word-Salad Poetry

"[Y]ou mustn't become so enamored of the sounds you're using as to lose sight of your meaning. To do so would be tantamount to creating word-salad, and even as a form of rebellion, that won't do, it simply won't. Why? Because it's been done too many times already and by now it's just plain boring, as boring as saying the same word or phraseover and over like a mantra. If people found it on a printed page, they'd simply shrug and move on; if they heard you reading it aloud, they'd just tune out. So what, some of you are saying? So plenty; you're supposed to be communicating—poetry is a special form of communication between yourself, the poet, and others who want to or may be persuaded to hear what you have to say in your language." (Nancy Bogen, Be a Poet! Twickenham Press, 2007)

Word-Salad Spam

"Word-salad spam has become especially problematic in the last year, say antispam software companies. The technique of stringing together gibberish phrases was devised specifically to dodge a sophisticated type of screening technology, known as a Bayesian filter, which gained popularity in 2003."
(Pui-Wing Tam, "Fruitcake Debutantes Defined by O, and Other Spam Tricks." The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2004)