Word Matters Podcast

Do we repeat ourselves? Very well then, we repeat ourselves.

Word Matters, episode 99

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Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, when English repeats itself. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: A listener questions a tautology in one of our definitions and starts us off on a discussion of all types of repetition and redundancy.

Peter Sokolowski: We have a nice note from Leonard, and it has a question: the June 2nd Word of the Day defines the verb meld as “to blend or mix together.” Then the two examples use that word with the word together. Isn't “to meld together” a tautology? Two of my favorite startling examples of a tautology are “pin number” and “please RSVP.” Do you think tautologies should be avoided?

Peter Sokolowski: That's a great question. Tautology we define as “needless repetition of an idea, statement or word or an instance of such repetition.” And within logic, a specialized definition: “a statement that is true by virtue of its logical form alone.”

Peter Sokolowski: And it comes from the Latin word, which was from the Greek word. So tautology essentially means in English today what it meant in Greek a couple of thousand years ago.

Emily Brewster: Now the key there to me is “needless repetition.” What does it mean for repetition to be needless?

Ammon Shea: I think that's an excellent point, Emily, because I don't have language peeves with the language. I have language peeves with the peevers. So when you hear “omit needless words,” what does that mean? We don't need any words. We could be pictographic entirely.

Ammon Shea: To me, a word which adds to the flow of the sentence, the rhythm of the sentence, or even just the mouth feel of the sentence, it sounds fun to say so I'm going to say it, to me, that's a needful word. Whereas other people might think it's needless.

Peter Sokolowski: And the thing is repetition bothers people, and this gets to something we've talked about before, on a logical level. It's not necessarily linguistic, it might be just logic that bothers people.

Emily Brewster: Right. And in different circumstances, these kinds of repetition can be problematic. And in other circumstances, they are not. So Ammon, you were talking about the rhythm and mouth feel. And certainly repetition in musical lyrics or in poetry is less troublesome to people than I assume repetition and tautologies in defining text tend to be.

Emily Brewster: Shall we actually answer this particular question, is our definition of meld problematic? My argument is that no, it is not problematic because the definition is easier to understand with that little hint of repetition there. Efficiency is not a greater good than efficacy. So in this case, “to mix together,” I think that is clearer, that is more quickly understood by the reader than simply defining meld as “to mix.”

Peter Sokolowski: Even a recipe, you sometimes see “mix together,” which is essentially unnecessary, but I do find it helpful because you realize, okay, these things are going to become one. “E pluribus unum,” that phrase comes from apparently a Roman recipe for salad that was admired by Benjamin Franklin or one of the founders, “from many, one.” The idea is to make one kind of substance out of these others. And I do find it useful as a signpost or directions or instructions.

Emily Brewster: I understand the impulse to want to strip things down to their barest bones of communicative ability. What is the most efficient way you can communicate something? Twitter used to require that of people when the character counts were so small. But I think in general, people tend to value something that isn't so onerous on the reader or on the listener. There's something about a longer phrase that gives the listener more time to follow what you're saying. Bare efficiency can be really hard to follow along with.

Peter Sokolowski: And can lack style. Efficiency is a style in itself. Just for the sake of it, what are some of these annoying ones? He mentioned “pin number,” but also there's “ATM machine,” right? People love to hate that one.

Ammon Shea: A lot of times they are particularly rich in acronymic settings. So “personal identification number number,” that's what bothers people. But I would argue that even though it is a redundancy, it doesn't matter. And it is redundant, but it's just a new word, “pin number.”

Ammon Shea: Part of the way that language works is that it works in illogical ways. “RSVP please,” I think that's totally fine. Yes, we're doubling the please. That's okay. What is being lost by the doubling? Well, a microsecond of your time. Now, what is being lost by your quibble? Far greater than a microsecond of your time. We're all sitting around talking about how the language shouldn't work that way. English is going to hell in a handbasket, whatever. And now everybody feels bad about themself and the language. And to me, that's a far greater detriment than just being like, oh yeah, we repeated the please.

Peter Sokolowski: In that particular case, and this may apply to the “pin number” and “ATM machine” also, that RSVP has become lexicalized in a way that we don't even recognize in the dictionary. Because we acknowledge it's an abbreviation meaning “please reply.” But RSVP used as an absolute, it's just a reply. And RSVP doesn't necessarily include the idea of please or thank you, it's just a reply. That's not yet in the dictionary. And yet as English speakers, we don't think of what those initials really stand for. We just take it to mean a reply.

Emily Brewster: Right. RSVP is a French phrase; English speakers, most of us, don't speak French. And the phrase RSVP, that abbreviation, that acronym, really means, “tell me if you're coming.” “I'm inviting you to something, tell me if you're coming.” And I feel like if I don't say, “please RSVP,” it's rude.

Ammon Shea: What's also interesting there is that not only has RSVP become lexicalized, but it's taken from another language. And one of the things that English is very good at is that when we borrow from another language, we put our own syntactical structure on it. A classic case of this is hoi polloi, a phrase from the Greek meaning “the many.” And some people, when they like to show off their knowledge of Greek, say, well, you shouldn't say “the hoi polloi” because it's “the the many” because hoi means “the,” and polloi means “many” or “people.” But we're not actually speaking in Greek, we're using a Greek phrase in an English context. And so “the hoi polloi” is actually quite natural and it's in line with what English does when it borrows phrases or words from other languages quite often.

Peter Sokolowski: You remind me of a favorite in house joke in the bilingual department at Merriam-Webster years back, to this day I still use this, although all of my colleagues from those years have moved on. There was a restaurant in downtown Springfield that used to have a little slate or chalkboard outside that would have the soup of the day. And it would say “soup du jour of the day.”

Peter Sokolowski: Of course, my colleagues are lexicographers. We would go in there once a week or whatever, and we didn't have a conversation about it, they would just say the “soup du jour of the day.” And so that became a fixed phrase, “soup du jour of the day,” because of course soup means “soup,” but du jour means “of the day.” But clearly these people had felt that soup du jour simply meant “special soup”—the soup that is not on the menu. And again, it was, therefore, for them, lexicalized in a way that had nothing to do with the words' meaning in French because who cares, we're in Springfield, Massachusetts. And “soup du jour of the day” was easily understood. It is a little bit funny. I have to say to this day, I still reflexively say “soup du jour of the day” if it ever comes into my conversation.

Emily Brewster: It's a great example. Again, like RSVP, it's this foreign phrasing that is being brought into the language and taking on a use that's really actually distinct from its source.

Peter Sokolowski: It is distinct because it's English now.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. Next up, more on the language's repetitious ways. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code, matters, at checkout. That's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S, at shop.merriam-webster.com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski, join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: We continue our discussion of tautologies, redundancies and repetitions.

Emily Brewster: There are lots of other redundancies, tautologies, repetitious phrases that writers are warned against. We've talked about “pin number” and “ATM machine.” In both of those cases, the word that is being repeated has been swallowed up by the acronym, which is taking on its own function really. And so the repetition is not so obvious. But people also warn against phrases like “advanced planning,” “basic fundamentals.”

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. Another one is “free gift.”

Peter Sokolowski: There we go.

Ammon Shea: That people like to say.

Peter Sokolowski: People hate that.

Ammon Shea: But they want a sense of gift to be set in stone. When in fact it is untethered, as all words are, and is shifting. In a lot of cases, it's a sign of discomfort with semantic drift that when people say “I don't like free gift,” what they mean is “gift is taking on new and extended, broader meanings that I am uncomfortable with.”

Emily Brewster: Ammon, do you charge for your gifts?

Ammon Shea: Well, I don't give gifts to people, but if I did, I would charge for them. Just kidding. Nobody wants gifts from me.

Peter Sokolowski: He pays in friendship.

Emily Brewster: Redundancy is useful sometimes and it can also be overdone.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, and here's the thing, with the case of “free gift,” I think you start on a slightly different path, which is the language of marketing or salesmanship. People can become sensitive to and be annoyed by it because they feel like, okay, you're bending the language to sell me something. And I think there is a marketing tactic to use language in this way to induce you in one way or another. And some of it's laughable and funny and some of it's gray and boring. Some of it is noticeable and annoying.

Peter Sokolowski: “Free gift” falls into that category because no one would really say that in the context of a birthday party or Christmas or whatever. But they would in the case of, oh, if you buy this, you get this. And so if there's a transaction, it becomes a different thing. Not just a language peeve or a problem, but a conceptual idea that you might feel defensive about or wary about.

Emily Brewster: I think you're exactly right. And again, this is about context. We are, I think, especially wary of language from advertising and from business. Those are, I think, two kinds of jargon that turn people off more than other kinds of jargon do. It's because I think we feel like we're liable to be victimized in some way.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Emily Brewster: That they are using their tricky language to put us in circumstances that we did not mean to sign up for.

Peter Sokolowski: Many examples, at least one I remember just as a kid, we just repeated it all the time because it was so funny. It was dinner knives, table settings that we had, and either the label or the package said “genuine simulated plastic wood handles.” That was just someone in marketing just basically was using words to fill space. Yes, it is a handle. Because that sequence of words was funny to us as kids, I still remember it to this day, it falls in the category of this marketing mess of language.

Peter Sokolowski: The word tautology I think has a negative connotation for sure. If something's pleasant, then you want to revisit it, you don't want to regurgitate it. Regurgitate's another negative way of experiencing something twice or repeating something. And so a tautology has got a clear, to me, negative connotation.

Emily Brewster: Right. As does redundancy.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course.

Emily Brewster: Oh, and there's the “department of redundancy department.”

Peter Sokolowski: The point is you don't need it.

Emily Brewster: Meanwhile, repetition I think is looked upon more charitably. Again, I turn to song lyrics for example, “repetition and rhythm.”

Peter Sokolowski: Rhythm.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam- webster.com.

Emily Brewster: Our theme music is by Tobias Voight. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and me. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster and New England Public Media.

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