Word meaning and processing speed

least, meaning smallest
From symbolmastery.com

Dyslexia expert Maryanne Wolf says, “the more you know about a word, the faster you can read it.”  Now researchers have demonstrated that the brain recognizes words with concrete meanings faster than abstract words, and that words that are associated with large size are recognized faster than words signifying smallness.  For example, test subjects will respond faster to the word “elephant” than the word “mouse.”

The faster response for concrete words seems to be tied to their visuo-spatial impact: something that conjures up a mental image of something big also seems to be a stronger draw for mental attention.

For abstract words, there is something different at work. Test subjects responded more quickly to words such as as “paradise” or “disaster” (ideas associated with sense of largeness)  than to  “humble” or “intimate” (concepts tied to a sense of smallness). These differences seemed to be associated with a greater level of emotional arousal invoked with the words that are connected to big ideas.

The researchers explained:

Bigger concepts (e.g., disaster) tend to comprise a “bigger” range of introspective, social, and situational associations than smaller concepts (e.g.,incident). Access to a richer network of semantic information grants bigger concepts a cognitive advantage over smaller concepts in word recognition.

These findings shed light on Ron Davis’ early discovery that dyslexics tend to stumble on small, abstract words of language. The Davis trigger words are the very small function words of language:  not only are words such as “to” or “at” orthographically small and abstract, but their meanings also tend to have low emotional resonance.


1) Maryanne Wolf, “Common Questions about Fluency” (Scholastic.com)

2) Yao B, Vasiljevic M, Weick M, Sereno ME, O’Donnell PJ, et al. (2013) Semantic Size of Abstract Concepts: It Gets Emotional When You Can’t See It. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75000. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075000