Language: The Department of Redundancy Department

By Mordechai Schiller

Ok, here’s today’s assignment:

Pick a group, any group or nationality you dislike. (Don’t tell me which. It’s none of my business. Besides, I’m an equal opportunity enjoyer.)

Now fill in the blank below:

“Saying a stupid ______ (fill in the group you dislike) is like saying mayim acharonim vasser.”

Mayim acharonim means “the last waters.” No, not the last chance saloon to buy spring water before a trip. It’s the water used to wash fingertips before bentching — reciting the Grace After Meals.

The phrase “mayim acharonim vasser” — together with “vasser,” the Yiddish word for water — is redundant because mayim means water. That error is so widespread that it has become a running joke … and a metaphor for any redundant phrase.

Some redundancies can be disorienting. A sign at a gas station reads “Please prepay in advance.” A street sign reads “Left Lane Closed When Closed.”

(You can’t get there, but please pay first.)

Some people have labeled such usage “RAS syndrome — Redundant Acronym Syndrome syndrome.”

A technical term for a redundancy that circles around and repeats again is a pleonasm. H.W. Fowler defined it as using “more words than are required to give the sense intended.” Ambrose Bierce, in his caustic Devil’s Dictionary, defined pleonasm as “An army of words escorting a corporal of thought.”

Sometimes, though, corporals get a promotion. Not all repetition is redundant. The Torah uses repetition, either to emphasize a point, or to teach a new lesson.

G-d blessed all living creatures to “be fruitful and multiply” (Bereishis 1:22). That might seem repetitious. But it emphasizes the momentousness of the blessing. Rashi explains, “Had He said ‘Be fruitful’ only, one creature might have brought forth a single one, and no more; therefore He added ‘and multiply,’ implying that one should bring forth many.”

Describing the Flood (Bereishis 7:19), the verse (in the ArtScroll Stone Chumash translation) says, “The waters strengthened very much upon the earth, all the high mountains which are under the entire heavens were covered.” But in the original Hebrew, the verse repeats the word “me’od me’od — very, very much.” Why the repetition?

According to two of the Rishonim (Sages of the 10th to 15th centuries), “First the waters lifted the Ark; then they became more violent and tossed it aimlessly about (Radak). Verse 19 uses the word me’od — very, twice after it has already been used in verse 18, to emphasize the powerful surge of the waters; it could not possibly have been stronger (Ibn Ezra).”

Ten generations later, when the Angel orders Avraham not to harm his son Yitzchak, the Angel calls to him, “‘Avraham! Avraham!’ The repetition of the name expressed love (Rashi), and urgency (Midrash).”

One need not be pious to acknowledge that it is not merely sacrilege, but silly to compare the Bible with secular literature. That said, writing from the classics down to social media is replete with repetition. 

In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Caesar’s friend Brutus joins the conspiracy to assassinate him. At Caesar’s funeral, Marc Antony declares, “This was the most unkindest cut of all.”

This is a case (the usage, not the assassination) of “Hypallage, known also as the transferred epithet … a figure of speech in which the logical subject has been displaced by what would more literally be something else that isn’t directly named. … It was not the cut that was unkind, but rather the cutter. Hence the object has become the subject” (Garner’s Modern English Usage).

Not all good writing need be a masterpiece of literature. Ben Yagoda wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the poet Lew Welch, who had a day job as a copywriter. Welch had to create a slogan for an insecticide product. Rather than write an unredundant “prosaic, dull, forgettable” line, Welch came up with:

Raid Kills Bugs Dead

But most pleonasms are clunky, not cogent. If a repetition doesn’t put a thought in your mind or a smile on your face (where else would it put them?), kill it.

A worse sin than pleonasm is tautology. “(The Greek tauto means ‘the same’) designed to define itself by repetition of itself,” William Safire explained. He labeled “It is what it is” a tautology. “Often accompanied by a shrug, it is used to deflect inquiry with panache.” (Panache — pronounced pu-nash — means elegance and style.)

Safire wrote that the word redundant … is similar to “‘inundations,’ since both words are rooted in unda, the Latin for ‘wave.’ To be inundated is to be overwhelmed by a wave, and to be redundant is to be overflowing, unnecessarily wordy, tautologous, overabundant, excessive, or using too many synonyms in a single definition.”

The title of this column is a popular phrase that came from a 1970 skit by the Firesign Theatre. A character, fearing he’ll never get out of college because of a shutdown, is reassured:

“But don’t worry, don’t worry. Your food, housing, insecurity will be guaranteed by your Department of Redundancy Department, and the Natural Guard.”

Safire had his own pleonasm posse. He called his activist readers the “Lexicographic Irregulars” — a guerrilla band who sent him answers and questions (more answers than questions) … and criticisms. The criticisms often came from the division he called the “Gotcha Gang.” He dubbed a militant wing of the gang “the Squad Squad.” They would lie in wait to attack any “unnecessary repetition of an idea in a different word,” especially if Safire himself was the offender. (Then he would get letters starting with “You of all people …”)

Safire summed up his advice in what he called a “fumblerule — a mistake that calls attention to the rule.” He said, “Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.”

One mo’ time:

“Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.”

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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