Pareidolia is a really great word. Interesting meaning too. Did you know what it meant before I asked this question?

I don’t think I do.  Guesswork and assumption, and some dugg etymology makes me think it’ll mean something like ‘fake wandering’ or ‘apparent sadness’, or maybe ‘pseudo-obsession’. None of these quite make sense as concepts though, so I’m not sure what they’d actually mean.

Taking the word apart, we can build a few roots out of it. ‘Pareille’ is a french word, but I don’t know what it means. ‘Dolia’ could come from a similar route to ‘dolorous’, which means heavy or sad (kind of). The word ‘idol’ is in the middle too, if you split it up unintuitively, which I think would turn the ‘pare-‘ into something close resembling ‘para’.

The word itself lolls about attractively. I’m imagining it describes some kind of psychological phenomenon, or a mystical occurence. It reminds me of words like ‘glossolalia’ which is the technical term for speaking in tongues (I think). But the roots are odd, pointing back to things I uncommon and so somewhat incomprehensible.

So the answer to the question is no. I don’t, and I probably haven’t guessed right either. I guess I’d better look it up, and see where we go from here.


Ahhh. Pareidolia. I was miles off with the meaning (apart from the ‘psychological effect’ stab), but not hugely far off with the etymology (though I did make about eight guesses). Para (beside or with) combines with eidolia (image or shape, and definitely related to idol). So you’ve got a sort of image.

Pareidolia is basically the effect when random or semi random stimulus is arranged into familiar shapes by the brain. This is how you see faces in random textures, or hear words in records played backwards.

The brain is good at picking up patterns, so good in fact, that it tries to make them all the time. The mind is constantly trying to make the world make sense, so it will happily take random stimulus and find a recognisable, if illusory, pattern within it.

Interestingly, this is kind of what my brain was doing when it was trying to make up meanings for the word ‘pareidolia’, despite not knowing the meaning. Without a known definition, a word can be seen as a random structure (it’s not random, it’s built out of bits of other words in other languages, but we can treat it as such, in a way). The letters are arrange, and my brain tries to make patterns out of it. The patterns I picked first were ‘pareille’ and ‘dolorous’.

Language is odd, because it is arbitrary. It has meaning that we’ve applied to it, but the words aren’t inherently anything, they are just structures of letters, which are in turn just structures of lines and curves. That we have ascribed sounds to these, and then ascribed meaning to combinations of those, is unusual, but sensible.

The brain wants to make sense of the world. So we’ll find, build and share patterns.

Because its what we are made of.

Illustration by Jaime


About Alabaster Crippens

Joiner of Dots. Player of Games. Unreliable Narrator. Dancing Fool.
This entry was posted in Illustrations by Jaime, Questions by Emma C. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pareidolia is a really great word. Interesting meaning too. Did you know what it meant before I asked this question?

  1. Pingback: Pareidolia « JAIME HUXTABLE

  2. Spectator says:

    Very interesting .Thank you .

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