Saturday, July 16, 2011

Tautologies Can Be Big Huge Annoying Annoyances

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:
  • free gift,
  • big huge _______,
  • new innovation,
  • lonely isolation.
  • I thought about the linguistic habit during the trip home. At first, I took the position that using such terms demonstrates an obvious lack of education. Surely, an argument can be made, especially given the rampant habit of abbreviated texting, that people have become linguistically lazy. Thus, lazy speech is thought of as being the norm. It's hardly a stretch, at that point, to attribute frequent use of redundant words to the idea that sloppy speech is "normal speech."

    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.

    If you ever think of dying
    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.


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    2. The tautologies most annoying to me are those which seem to indicate that the speaker doesn't know the meaning of a word and therefore thinks it needs a helper. The phrase "revert back" is a common example, as is the similar "return back."

      He reverted back to his old bad behavior and stopped returning borrowed tools back to his neighbor.

      My yoga instructor vexes me with her frequent use of "extend out" to tell us what to do with our hands or legs. She would do better to drop the "out" and use a word or two to provide extra direction. For instance, rather than her ubiquitous "extend your arms our" she might say "extend your arms toward the ceiling."

      Then again, I'm sure "lift up," is not the only tautology commonly occurring in my own speech. So much of language is picked up through imitation and never analyzed.