Semantic similarity effects provide critical insight into the organization of semantic knowledge and the nature of semantic processing. In the present study, we examined the dynamics of semantic similarity effects by using the visual world eyetracking paradigm. Four objects were shown on a computer monitor, and participants were instructed to click on a named object, during which time their gaze position was recorded. The likelihood of fixating competitor objects was predicted by the degree of semantic similarity to the target concept. We found reliable, graded competition that depended on degree of target-competitor similarity, even for distantly related items for which priming has not been found in previous priming studies. Time course measures revealed a consistently earlier fixation peak for near semantic neighbors relative to targets. Computational investigations with an attractor dynamical model, a spreading activation model, and a decision model revealed that a combination of excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms is required to obtain such peak timing, providing new constraints on models of semantic processing. © 2009 The Psychonomic Society, Inc.