Pleonasm from Greek πλεονασμός /plijəʊnazmos/, from πλέον meaning "more, too much" is the use of more words than necessary to define or express an idea. It is similar to the more widely known tautology, but although aspects of pleonasm and tautology do overlap, there are narrow differences between the two terms. Whereas a tautology describes a proposition whereby x = x, a pleonasm merely uses extra words than necessary to explain an idea. Hence, “it is eternal and it cannot die” is tautological, while “he was killed dead” is pleonastic. Similarly, “the city was razed to the ground“ is tautological because it couldn’t have been razed anywhere else, and “I will cut the cake into four quarters” is pleonastic because the four is superfluous. Other examples of pleonasm include burning fire, safe haven, free gift, true fact, at this moment in time, a rate of speed, each and every, and people’s democracy.
La Morte di Cesare (Camuccini)A common use of pleonasm is to aid communication and to avoid ambiguity, in this case functioning as a redundancy check. If there is a problem with the means of communication being used – a poor telephone or skype connection, atrocious handwriting etc. - then using a few extra words that basically mean the same thing can help get your message across. Another positive function could be as a literary, artistic or rhetorical device, used to intensify meaning as in, “are you out of your tiny, little mind?” Here little is clearly pleonastic as tiny already lets us know quite how small the listener's mind is implied to be. Even so, some of the world's greatest writers have consciously used pleonasm to give added weight to what they intend to stress, as with Shakespeare's double superlative when Mark Antony describes Brutus's stabbing of Julius Caesar as "the most unkindest cut of all". Pleonasm can also be useful when using obscure, rare or foreign terms or to clarify technical jargon. Obviously, here it depends on the listener's knowledge whether such pleonastic language will be irritating, amusing or helpful - it can even be taken as intensely patronising if people feel they are being talked down to.
However, many foreign terms have been borrowed and then clarified with a pleonastic term, and often this is considered as helpful, although again this is sometimes done for humorous effect: it’s like déjà vu all over again. We tend to be less fussy about pleonasm when it comes to geography and place names, possibly because English speakers are notoriously rubbish at foreign languages. So we will gloss Spanish – the La Brea tar pits “the the tar tar pits”; German - Schwarzwald Forest “Black Forest forest”; Arabic - the Sahara Desert “the Deserts desert”; and Afrikaans – Drakensberg Mountains “Dragons’ Mountains Mountains" etc.
Pendle HillBritain is awash with pleonastic placenames, largely because of the different peoples who lived in the same place added to existing names with words from their own languages which had the same meaning. Hence, there are at least three British rivers named the River Ouse or "River River" – from Brythonic usa “water, river”; we can find Eas Fors Waterfall on the island of Mull in Scotland, "Waterfall, Waterfall, Waterfall" from Scottish Gaelic eas and Norse fors, both meaning “waterfall”; and there is Napton-on-the-Hill in Warwickshire "Hilltop Settlement on the Hill" from cnaepp Old English “hilltop” and tun OE “settlement”. Hills give particularly brilliant examples of pleonasm. England has two hills named “Hill Hill Hill” – Pendle Hill in Lancashire - Cumbric pen and OE hyll combined to make Pennul before Hill was added - and Bredon Hill in Worcestershire - Celtic bre and OE don. But the Daddy of them all is supposedly Torpenhow Hill, in Cumbria,which combines Saxon tor, Brythonic pen, and how from Old Norse haugr to rejoice in the name of “Hill Hill Hill Hill”. Unfortunately, spoilsport experts have debunked this as a nineteenth century invention - the village of Torpenhow does indeed stand on a hill, but there is no Torpenhow Hill as such. On the other hand, in the land of our glorious Brexit we can ignore so-called “experts” and believe whatever nonsense we want, ergo Torpenhow Hill does exist!
Legal English has a particular fondness for pleonastic doublets, and they are easy to find in most legal documents of any size. A classic example comes from the British Lord Chancellor, Lord Westbury, in 1864, when he described a phrase in an Act as "redundant and pleonastic". Other common examples include terms and conditions, null and void, and have and hold.
Now match the words below to the words in the list which complete the legal doublets. Hover your mouse (tap on mobiles) to reveal the answer.
aid acknowledge alter bind care cease deem final fit from now heirs legal over sole will
- and consider
- and abet
- and successors
- and above
- and attention
- or change
- and henceforth
- and desist
- and testament
- and proper
- and valid
- and obligate
- and conclusive
- and exclusive
- and confess
A particular type of pleonasm has been labelled by wits at the New Scientist magazine as RAS syndrome (Redundant Acronym Syndrome syndrome) since its coinage in 2001. This often occurs after an acronym when the elements of the acronym may not be familiar. Examples include PIN number (Personal Identification Number number), HIV virus (human immunodeficiency virus virus), pdf format (personal document format format) scuba apparatus (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus apparatus), LCD display (Liquid Crystal Display display) and ATM machine (Automated Teller Machine machine).
That's all from me, as any more on this subject would be decidedly pleonastic. I will say farewell with Goodbye and God bless! Is that pleonastic or tautological? You decide!
Death of Caesar: By Vincenzo Camuccini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pendle Hill: By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons