In psychology, jamais vu (/ˈʒɑːmeɪ ˈvuː/; from French, meaning “never seen”) is the phenomenon of experiencing a situation that one recognizes but that nonetheless seems very unfamiliar.
From a linguistic perspective, the phenomenon that a word after frequent repetition seems to lose its meaning is connected with the very nature of words. A word as a unit of language has three characteristics:
- It has form, i.e. it is shaped out of sounds or, in the case of written language, out of letters (characters).
- It has function, which (among other things) means that it operates in a meaningful sentence.
- It has meaning, which implies that it refers to a certain unit of thought (a concept or an idea) within a context.
However, when a word is repeated over and over again, it is in fact only the form which is repeated. There is no sentence, so the function of the word is eliminated. Its meaning, too, is effectively eliminated, because there is no context. A few repetitions will leave the language user’s memory and expectation intact: they remember the meaning and expect a meaningful reference. Continued repetition, however, will more and more foreground the word form to the exclusion of function and meaning, until the word literally “makes no sense.” It is not the word that is being repeated, but only one of its aspects: the word form.
Often described as the opposite of déjà vu, jamais vu involves a sense of eeriness and the observer’s impression of seeing the situation for the first time, despite rationally knowing that he or she has been in the situation before.
Jamais vu is more commonly explained as when a person momentarily does not recognize a word, person, or place that he or she already knows.