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.


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