The words we say but do not actually need — Tautology

We do say a bunch of unnecessary stuff in our everyday conversations and monologues. You know, the machine in ATM machine, the comics in DC comics (yes, DC technically stands for Detective Comics), and the display in LCD display. Many of these words are already incorporated in the abbreviations that contain them.

Furthermore, when we cross language boundaries, we come across yet more words that, when translated entirely to English, would seem that we have added an unnecessary word along the way. Take, for example, the Sahara [desert, from Arabic], the Ontario [lake, from Huron], and the Rio Grande [river, from Spanish]. We often say the Sahara Desert, Lake Ontario, and Rio Grande River respectively, pretty much meaning Desert Desert, Lake Great Lake, and River Big River. So, what is this linguistic phenomenon, and why does it exist?

Such phrases are commonly referred to as a “tautology”, where a phrase or a statement repeats an idea using similar words. The term derives from Hellenistic Greek tautos and logos, meaning “the same word” when put together. In literature, it can be used as a literary device to place an emphasis on a certain part of the statement or phrase, but may also be interpreted as a fault in style, or adding unnecessary “waffle”.

The concept of tautology is not new, with its first appearance in the English language dating back to the 16th century, and entering the English realm of mathematical logic in the early 20th century. But of course, writers, poets, and playwrights have used such a literary technique, possibly before such a term even entered the English language!

However, the focus of this post is not really the literary side of affairs, but why we tend to use tautology for certain place names and abbreviations. After all, tautology adds unnecessary words to writing or speech without adding any further substance to it. Or so you may think.

While many such places do derive their names directly from the corresponding word for the geographical feature in a certain language of origin, these words do not necessarily sound like anything meaningful in English, especially to monolingual English speakers. Thus, it would have been natural for these speakers to add the English word for the geographical feature at the end to further specify the geographical place. This leads to place names like Lake Ontario. This also extends to some other terms, most notably sharia law, where sharia refers to religious law drawing interpretations of the Islamic text, the Quran. Thus, while it sounds unnecessary when we put some further thought to it, these repetitive place names actually do have a reason to exist when we think about how not many would be aware, or be bothered to find out every language of origin for these tautological place names. Such tautology is typically not parsed in many instances.

For abbreviations, a specific term applies, known as the RAS Syndrome, or redundant acronym syndrome (syndrome). This occurs when one or more words which are part of an acronym are used redundantly together with the abbreviation. You observe this everywhere in colloquial speech, and sometimes used with the intention of sarcasm or low humour like “RIP in peace”, or “SMH my head”.

Sometimes, such redundancies can be used to improve communication, by providing context to reduce this alphabet soup phenomenon when one is bombarded with a tirade or acronyms. Personally, I am extremely bad with acronyms, and this additional context sometimes helps. I would not have guessed that SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) is a type of bilateral conference unless it is proceeded by “talks”.

This is perhaps one of the examples where redundancy could, ironically, actually be necessary in communication. There are some circumstances where tautology is needed to ensure a sentence can retain its logic and grammaticality. Yes, the words added may not contribute to any further meaning, but they do provide a bit of context to an otherwise uninformed speaker, or simply not parsed because we are unaware of the word’s meaning in the language of origin, as with some place names.


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