Word Nerd: We are totally surrounded by redundancies

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I first became aware of a penchant for political verbal diarrhea back in 1993. CBC journalist, Hana Gartner, was interviewing then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who asserted that he was respected by most Quebecers, and that it was only the “intellectual intelligentsia” who disparaged him.

Chrétien was following in the flowing tradition exemplified by fellow politicians. President Calvin Coolidge once opined,“When large numbers of men are unable to find work, unemployment results.” The man who provided impeachment insurance for George Herbert Bush, former Vice President Dan Quayle, said in a 1988 speech, “I got through a number of things in the area of defense, like showing the importance of cruise missiles and getting them more accurate so that we can have precise precision.” In 2012, Brian Pallister, leader of the Progressive Conservative party in Manitoba, expressed his hope that “Everyone will enjoy themselves this holiday season, even you infidel atheists.”

These are some of the more egregious examples of redundant language but yes, we are not drowning in a bog of unnecessary words, but in a veritable swampland. Why can’t things be merely null, why do they have to be void as well? If I look in every nook, must I explore every cranny? Must I desist when I cease, abet when I aid, choose when I pick and rave when I rant? Can’t I just cease, aid, pick and rant? When we talk about “complete annihilation,” “frozen tundra,” “close proximity,” and a “woman pregnant with child,” I ponder, what are the alternatives?

Have you ever seen a young geezer, a cold water heater, a non-tuna fish, a non-living survivor, or a non-lazy bum? I’ve smelled, with my own nose, different bouquets. But the only type I’ve ever seen, with my own eyes, is the flowery variety.

Am I paranoid, or is there some secret of time only I can’t intuit? Samuel Goldwyn said, “I never make predictions, especially about the future” and the hoi polloi are constantly referring to “future plans,” and “advance warning.” This implies there are alternatives like past plans and a past future. The past is equally beguiling. Why do we specify “past experience” and “never before”? Aren’t all experiences “past”? Why does “before” have to be added to “never”? Is there a hidden quantum dimension called the “never after” waiting to be unearthed by string theory? I worry when someone tells me the “honest truth,” or gives me a “garden salad” to eat, or something “100 per cent pure” to drink. Does that mean that if they only tell me the truth or ply me with a mere salad or a beverage that’s only 99.99 per cent pure that I’m in “serious danger”? Do I over exaggerate? Please R.S.V.P so I can overcome my state of uneasy anxiety.

Mercifully, it takes but a single word to describe verbal redundancy. The term is “pleonasm”, defined by the OED as “the use of more words in a sentence than are necessary to express the meaning.” It derived from the Latin pleonasmus which, in turn, came from the Greek pleonasmos (more-ness). Antony’s line in Julius Caesar, “the most unkindest cut of all,” is an example of a pleonasm done for effect, as is the biblical “I am that I am.” In any case, after what happened to Lot’s wife, Moses was probably .squeamish about accusing the Burning Bush of redundancy.

Most pleonasms, however, are not so stylish and only denote poor form. “Could you repeat that again?” is an example of a commonly used pleonasm. A redundancy can be avoided by just saying either, “Could you repeat that?”, don’t say “each and every” and “at this point in time” when “every” and “at this time” suffice, nor say “she is a woman who” when “she is” will do, or use “if and when” when only “if” is required.

Perhaps I’m just an unprogressive conservative who pines for the halcyon days when you didn’t need to qualify that a gift was free, a victim innocent, a record new, and scholarship academic. In the past, one didn’t have to specify strictly private or natural grass. Then again, some pleonasms like “cash money” and “disposable garbage” have evolved into possible states of non-redundancy. Some might say that in the past “heterosexual sex” was pleonastic. Unfortunately, a former pleonasm, “healthy tan,” has mutated into an oxymoronic state in our ozone-depleted world.

So, who is to blame? As I live and breathe, I think I can pinpoint the party responsible for our modern orgy of redundancy. To paraphrase Émile Zola, J’accuse Raid Bug Repellant. They unveiled the slogan “Raid kills bugs dead” in 1966. To keep pace with this linguistic overkill, other advertisements stressed products that were “new innovations,” and “very unique.” McDonald’s isn’t content to sell billions of hamburgers but “billions and billions.” and Soft Soap Body Wash doesn’t merely make you “clean,” you become “more than just clean.” And don’t think the pleonastic process only flows towards aggrandizement. Isn’t a dot miniscule enough? Must we endure microdots?

N.B. Making a duplicate copy in any shape or form without my express, intended permission, and authorization is totally and utterly allowed, and indeed more preferable than alternative options.

Excerpted from Howard’s upcoming book Arranged & Deranged Wit.

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