Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fun with Redundancy

A recent NYT Arts headline, “Once More, Revisiting A Queen Yet Again” is a playful double-redundancy, amplified to open a Janet Maslin review of yet-another-book-about-Anne Boleyn. Seeing it, I decided to write a piece on “redundancy” which would trace my arc from a grade school nun’s dictum,
“it’s unnecessary, so don’t use one ever!” to my current libertine attitude, “if it’s fun, use one!” with stops along the way where I realized that my favorite food, tuna fish, was a redundancy, and, at one point, that I was in the euphemistically termed “redundancy business”, counseling laid-off employees.

I hear redundancies all day long, “My son is wearing an earring in his ear.” (and oxymoronic replies, “Thank God, he’s not wearing it in his tongue.”), and read them in serious literature, like this from Sandra Steingraber in January’s The SUN, “The house sparrow is a biblical species. It originated in the Middle East and is now ubiquitous all over the world.”

Wrapping one’s arms around Google results for “redundancy” is like trying to embrace a giant octopus! Basically, “redundant” means superfluous. It’s been forever associated with language, meaning unnecessarily wordy, as in “audible to the ear.” Indeed, its synonyms: “tautology” comes from Greek, tauto- (same), -logy (word), and “pleonasm” means using more than enough language in speaking or writing.

But over the centuries the word has proven to have great elasticity. Not only writers, but engineers, chemists, logicians, and, as per above, Human Resources professionals, have stretched its meaning and applied it to anything that duplicates something else. Now that redundancy applies to concepts rather than strictly to words, now that it is used to convey any superfluity or duplication, we see it used more and more. It’s a great example of “living language,” of “etymology in action.”

And it’s very fashionable. Eager writers use “a bit redundant” and I ponder whether that’s the linguistic equivalent of “a little pregnant!” In one sitting with the morning papers recently, I read the comic strip, “Shoe”: a character is given the school assignment to write a sentence that illustrates a redundancy and he types, “There was a full moon over the nudist colony,” and an article by A. O. Scott: “… Meryl Streep’s 16th Oscar nomination … seemed both richly merited and a bit redundant.” In these cases, the word is stretched to the sense of, “it goes without saying.”

Unintended redundancies are common when we use acronyms. How often have you heard or seen: please RSVP (“please” is redundant as ‘s’il vous plait’ means ‘please’), and ATM machine (“machine” is redundant as the M stands for it)? PIN number is another familiar one.

Most important, I think, is to be so familiar with redundancies that you recognize one when you see or hear it, and that when you use one, you are fully aware you are doing so. They can be great fun … used well to make a point or to make your listener laugh. Consider this redundant bit of reportage attributed to a radio announcer, “The robbery was committed by a pair of identical twins. Both are said to be aged about twenty.” Intentional or not, it’s a brilliant and subtle example of the form.

To sum up, I want to say, “My nun could have had more fun.” And I don’t believe that’s an oxymoron!

1 comment:

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