I have to start this entry with a brief side note, and declare Costco to be as magical a place as the fabled Hogwarts. I can make this claim with a high level of certainty, for the simple reason that I turn invisible every time I go there. It's true. I can be completely still, looking at prices, and people will walk smack into me. And, they'll be shocked to learn I'd been in their path to begin with.
I only bring up the big-box store, because I was on the way home from Costco when this blog began to take shape in my mind. At the store, a young man had been passing out samples of laundry soap. Upon giving me my sample, he promised me it would, "clean a whole entire load of clothes." I wanted to ask him if that was opposed to a partial entire load, or a whole fraction of a load. I wanted to explain that the phrase "whole entire" is a tautology, and that using one word, or the other, would convey the same idea, without sounding redundant. Unfortunately, the lady behind me, with two toddlers in tow, wanted her sample, and an educational opportunity slipped from my grasp.
Websters Learners' Dictionary defines a tautology as, "a statement in which you repeat a word, idea, etc., in a way that is not necessary▪ 'A beginner who has just started,' is a tautology."
Examples of tautologies include:
While it was tempting to write the habit off as being solely the product of poor tutelage, I found myself stuck having to account for poetic and literary examples of the practice.
and you fear to wake tomorrow
Plant a garden! It will cure you
of your melancholy sorrow
Once you’ve learned to know peonies,
petunias, and roses,
You will find every morning
some new happiness discloses.
In the final stanza of Edgar Guest's Plant a Garden, the tautology "melancholy sorrow" is used to induce a particular emotion, the way a painter might use shades of gray and black. Likewise, in Shakespeare's Othello, Emilia spoke of, "...some most villainous knave, some base notorious knave, some scurvy fellow," to drive home the fact the Moore (Othello) is being lied to by the lowest form of life Emilia can imagine. In these cases, the use of tautologies is a conscious choice, rather than a stumbling of the tongue or pen.
If tautologies have legitimate places within poetry and literature, is it fair to think of them as products of lowbrow speech and writing? In my firm opinion, yes and no. The answer, in each case, depends on the intent of the speaker/writer. Certainly, a columnist writing about the "sick twisted crazy pervert" accused of killing a lone eight year old boy, in New York, may use tautologies to communicate a monstrously grotesque level of depravity. On the flip side, if your buddy's describing the "big huge burrito" he bought from the food cart, the word "huge" is probably a good enough to describe his lunch.