Early use of the word ‘asemic’

Thanks to Giles Goodland. Note: page numbers refer to the source mentioned at the end.

The word 'asemic' was published in 1885, in the Society for Psychical Research's Proceedings, in the article Automatic Writing part II, written by Frederic W H Myers. Myers (1843–1901) was a Classical (i.e. Ancient Greek and Latin language and culture) scholar who won prizes for his Latin verse, a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research, and inventor of the word 'telepathy'. It is likely that Myers coined the word 'asemic' in English.

My purpose isn't to critique Myers' ideas, but to point to his use of 'asemic'. In part of his article, Myers mulls over the vocabulary relating to difficulties with spoken language and written language. He mentions the terms for inability to hear words: word-deafness; inability to speak words: motor aphasia or aphemia (or, earlier, aphasia); inability to read (that is, to recognise) words: word-blindness; and inability to write words: agraphy (pp. 35–6). By 1885, according to Myers, 'aphasia' had expanded its original meaning of inability to speak, to cover all four of these disabilities. He also mentions the alternative term 'asemasia' and then offers his own terms 'asemia' and 'asemic', as superior to 'aphasia'.

Dr. McLane Hamilton has proposed asemasia, "defect in the power of giving signs." I shall venture to suggest asemia (with the adjective asemic,) as shorter and not more unauthorised. (p.36, double dagger note continued from p. 35)

Hamilton's 'defect in the power of giving signs' could be more accurately stated as 'inability to send or receive communication signs'. 'Asemia' survives in contemporary times as a medical term with the same meaning.

Numerously, Myers uses the word 'asemic' (p. 34 asterisk note, p. 36 mentioned above, p. 46, p. 47 numerous times, p. 48, p. 49 twice, p. 50, p. 53, p. 55, p. 56 twice, p. 57 twice, p. 58). 'Asemia' appears on p. 36 and p. 61.

In the course of his argument, Myers contrasts abnormal or subnormal, illegible automatic writing made by a person with 'asemic troubles' with supernormal, legible automatic writing made by a person who could be channeling an external personality, ideally containing information unknown to the person who wrote it. Thus, 'asemic' has a connotation of disability for Myers.

While attempting to produce automatic writing of his own, Myers inadvertently produced asemic writing (which will be mentioned more, below). With his focus on examining the phenomenon of legible automatic writing, he dismissed his illegible productions as being of no interest.

By extreme persistency, in the year 1875, I attained for a few weeks to the lowest degree of graphic automatism. The first symptom was that my fist would thump itself violently on the paper. Spasms were entirely new to my experience, but this seemed like a spasm of the arm, induced by expectant attention. Soon, however, it was plain that there was more than this. There was an unmistakable attempt to go through the act of writing. I scrawled rapidly many meaningless interlacing strokes, which sometimes bore a vague resemblance to letters of the alphabet, but never shaped themselves into a legible word. I never got beyond this point, and after some neglect of practice, even this faculty (if such it can be called) deserted me. (p. 37)

While Myers uses 'asemic' to describe a disability involving sending or receiving communication signs, in 21st century usage, 'asemic' is frequently used in the compound noun 'asemic writing', which denotes writing-like visual material which is illegible, typically created deliberately rather than as a consequence of a disability. Although his connotation of the asemic differs from contemporary usage, Myers would approve of finding a new way to use a word.

The point is worth mentioning, as raising the question, which frequently recurs in any new scientific inquiry, whether words may be adapted from the Greek in a sense other than that which they can be shown to have borne. I am decidely in favour of such adaptation, which I do not regard as a debasement of the Greek language, but rather as a prolongation of its vitality under altered conditions. (p. 34 dagger note)

Myers' employment of the syllable '-sem-' in 'asemia' and 'asemic' is a point of possible confusion. 'Asemic' could be understood as 'lacking marks', or 'lacking words' (as communication signs), two quite different meanings. The syllable '-sem-' is derived from Ancient Greek σῆμα (sêma), meaning 'mark', 'sign' or 'token'. Illegible writing that conveys no words meets the criterion of being asemic by lacking signs, if we allow 'signs' to mean 'words'. However, it would seem to be impossible to produce markless illegible writing, because marks are the most basic signs in writing. Writing cannot be asemic in the sense of being markless.


SOCIETY FOR PSYCHICAL RESEARCH / PROCEEDINGS OF THE GENERAL MEETING ON / January 30, 1885 / section I. AUTOMATIC WRITING PART II., pp. 1–63 A scanned version can be freely perused here. Another free scanned version, missing pp. 22, 23, 36 & 39, is here.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), Myers, Frederic William Henry article, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Liddell & Scott (1940), A Greek–English Lexicon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 1592

Tim Gaze
Mount Barker, South Australia (Peramangk lands)
June 2023