Semantic Noise

So, “semanticnoise” huh? What’s that about?


When I was in college, I took a course called “Introduction to Mass Communication.” It was a fine course, good teacher, and essentially non-threatening to my GPA. I recall thinking at the time that it was really more like “Common Sense as Applied to Mass Communication.” I think that’s what you’re supposed to think about “Intro” courses.

I really only remember one thing from it. It was on the first day. Sorry, Dr. Root…

Turns out there are two types of “interference” in the communication process. For the sake of discussion, let’s say the communication process in question is two people talking. For fun, we’ll call them “you” and “me.”

channel noise

The first is channel noise. Simply put, something gets in the way. If you say something to me while we stand on a street corner, that’s communication. If a jackhammer starts up ten feet away, that’s channel noise. Your signal (your voice) is disrupted in the communication space (the air) before it gets to my receptors (my ears). See? Common sense.

Channel noise can be visual too. You’re sitting at a red light in your car, reading a sign in a shop. A truck pulls up in the lane next to you, between you and the store. Channel noise.

semantic noise

The second is semantic noise. In this case, it’s not that I can’t hear you or that something gets in the way. The signal is received, but it doesn’t get processed the same way at the destination as it was intended at the source. Say I speak fluent Greek. I call you up on the phone and launch into an aggressive Grecian description of a movie I just saw. The phone line is clear; you can hear my voice. (No channel noise.) But you don’t understand what I’m saying, because you don’t know any Greek. <cliché>”It’s all Greek to you.”</cliché>

But that’s an obvious and not-too-interesting example. Consider this quote from the sage rap kings of the mid-1980’s, RUN-DMC:

Not “bad” meaning “bad” but “bad” meaning “good!” mp3 file

To one person, “bad” normally means something like “unpleasant,” “worthless,” “evil,” and so on. To another person, “bad” might mean “stupid,” “dope,” “tha bomb,” or “phat.” All of which mean “outstanding,” “first class,” “great,” etc. to that person.

When the “bad meaning good” person elaborates with the above terms, the “bad meaning bad” person just becomes more confused, since those terms are likely to still be generally “bad meaning bad.” Certainly not “outstanding.”

Sure, slang works like that. Kids and their parents don’t talk the same. Semantic noise goes further.

“I don’t get it.”

Sometimes, two people who have roughly similar backgrounds, interests, social circles, and educational experiences just can’t communicate. Maybe one of them is having a bad (“meaning bad”) day, or there’s just something in the word choice, inflection, or timing. The sender isn’t trying to confuse the receiver. For whatever reason, the meaning that comes from one’s brain and out of one’s mouth makes it to the other’s ears, but not to their brain.

This sort of thing used to happen to me all…the…time


I sat in class on the first day after receiving this wisdom and thought, “This is my problem. I suffer from semantic noise.”

No, I’m not mad. No, I’m not being mean. No, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. No, I’m not making fun of you. No, I’m not saying you’re wrong. No, no, no.

Then, on page nine of the textbook:

The solutions to semantic noise, as in the case of channel noise, are incumbent upon the sender.


I can’t be sure that you’re hearing my meaning the way I hear it in my mind just before sending it out my mouth. Maybe it’s worth my time to validate the signal before sending it. Maybe I should try to communicate.

so, why?

That spewed, here’s why you’re visiting instead of

  • I like the concept. A lot.
  • I think it sounds cool.
  • I always thought it would be a great name for a punk band.
  • When I start writing music again, I’ll make it my supa-fly ASCAP publishing name.
  • is too hard to type.

Enjoy your visit.

[originally written sometime in January 2001]