Monday, 28 September 2020

Saying the same thing twice

Tautology is a concept taken from logic. In everyday language it means saying the same thing twice. You may think you never do this but it is quite common to say "ATM machine," "ID card," "Please RSVP." All of these are tautologies. ATM = Automated Teller Machine; ID stands for Identity Document; RSVP = R├ępondez si'il vous plait (Please reply).

I'm sure you can think of others: a dry desert, a dead corpse, pre-pay in advance etc.

Sometimes tautology is deliberate, for effect, as in "It is what it is," "It's over when it's over,""Enough is enough." My father used to get very angry about "a new innovation." (You see pedantry can be inherited) But I gradually realised he was wrong: after all, if you had an innovation last year but this year have thought of an improvement, it is exactly that, a new innovation. 


This post was prompted by my middle daughter, who is annoyed by "global pandemic" (oh dear - it's being passed to the next generation). There were more than 300 comments about this phrase on Reddit. The WHO definition  is:

   "A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease".

By that criterion, "global pandemic" would indeed seem to be a tautology. But look at this article, "What is a pandemic?" in the Journal of Infectious Diseases 2009, co-authored by one Anthony Fauci.

"The sudden emergence and rapid global spread of a novel H1N1 influenza virus in early 2009  has caused confusion about the meaning of the word “pandemic” and how to recognize pandemics when they occur. Any assumption that the term pandemic had an agreed-upon meaning was quickly undermined by debates and discussions about the term in the popular media and in scientific publications. Uses of the term by official health agencies, scientists, and the media often seemed to be at odds. For example, some argued that a level of explosive transmissibility was sufficient to declare a pandemic, whereas others maintained that severity of infection should also be considered" 

The authors conclude: "There seems to be only 1 invariable common denominator: widespread geographic extension." So, as long as the definition does not insist upon "worldwide," I suppose Fauci and co would not regard "global pandemic" as tautologous.

Aldersgate street is a tautology
                                                           Aldersgate Street is a tautology

What about Oxymoron? It's a term from ancient Greek, meaning literally "sharpdull," so that it comes to symbolise words or phrases which contradict each other. We pretty much accept "bittersweet," "love hate relationship," "a deafening silence," and so on.

The French have a good one: "joli-laid"(m) and "jolie-laide" (f). It means "pretty-ugly." And it has been used of some of their most attractive celebrities.

                                                                       Jean-Paul Belmondo

                                                                          Jeanne Moreau

Do tell me your favourite oxymorons, even if you have invented them yourself.

Monday, 21 September 2020

A field day

Hard hat, jodhpurs, saddle, stables, gymkhana, curry comb, crop, mucking out. 

 What is Grandma on about? I've just listed a group of words and phrases that create what linguists call a "semantic field." If you see them all grouped together, you know that what is being referenced is horse riding. Every activity or academic discipline has its own semantic field. (It is sometime called a "lexical field). Whatever it is called, the link is the meaning of all these terms.

It could be apron, wok, saucepan, chopping board, knife, bain-marie, spatula - and the semantic field would be cookery. I'm sure you could think of your own examples.

In the 19th century a German called Konrad Duden invented a wonderful sort of cross between a dictionary and a thesaurus. He compiled regular dictionaries too: there are twelve volumes of his work. But what is now known as a "duden" is a kind of pictorial dictionary which takes one semantic field at a time and labels all the elements. I have the "Oxford Duden of Pictorial Italian" and jolly useful it is too.

In the last six or seven months we have been bombarded with social distancing, lockdown, hand sanitiser, PPE, shielding, second wave, moonshot, world-beating, test and trace, Covid-19, coronavirus, hotspot, quarantine, herd immunity, super spreader, self-isolation ... no guesses as to the semantic field there.


And then there's pandemic. I have been asked to write about "global pandemic" so next week's post will be about tautology. Is "global pandemic" tautologous or not?


Monday, 7 September 2020

Easily confused?

 This is a vocabulary post. There are pairs of words whose meanings are different but look so similar that some people find it hard to know which to use in any given situation. Take "uninterested" and "disinterested."

If you are "uninterested" in something, as I am in all sport except Men's Grand Slam tennis, it means you take no interest in it; it is not for you.

"Disinterested" is what you want those adjudicating sport to be, whether umpire, referee or line judge, having no personal or financial "interest" in the outcome. It's the same as "impartial." It never means not having an interest in something, in the sense of not finding it interesting.

Then there's "imply" and "infer." I imply; you infer. In other words, to imply is to suggest something - "I wouldn't buy a used car from him," whereas to infer is to pick up the suggestion - "You mean he isn't trustworthy?"

"Affect" and "effect." To affect something is to have an effect on it! "Knowing his past history with women affects my decision whether to go out with him" and "The effect of what she told me made me say no."

"Complement" and "compliment." You "complement" something by adding to it, making it more effective or complete. "That colour really complements her red hair." Whereas to "compliment" someone or pay them a "compliment" means to say something nice to someone. "She complimented her friend on her new dress" or "He paid her the compliment of listening to what she had to say."

"Emigrate" and "immigrate." You can't to one without the other. You "emigrate" from the country you are leaving and "immigrate" to the country you are moving to. When we talk about "immigrants," we should remember that they are "emigrants" from somewhere and think about why.

"Flaunt" and "flout." I see this mistake in printed books. They are both verbs. You "flaunt" your good looks, your car, your superior grasp of grammar. You "flout" the rules or the conventions.

"Loose" and "lose." One is an adjective and the other a verb. "Loose" is the opposite of "tight." And "lose" is the opposite of "win." They don't even sound the same.

"Stationary" and "stationery." These do sounds the same. The way to remember the difference is that "stationery" is sold by a "stationer." Whereas "stationary" means static or standing still.

"Fawn" and "faun." A fawn is a baby deer and gives its name to a sort of beige colour. A faun is a creature like Mr Tumnus in Narnia and is human above, goatlike from the waist down. Its also sometimes called a satyr.

"Hoard" and "horde." Another pair that sound the same. A hoard of gold is what Smaug the dragon sits on and a horde of people is a crowd, often a hostile one.

                                                                      A hoard of treasure
                                                     Statue of Attila the Hun and his horde