‘Oh the games people play now/never meaning what they say now/never saying what they mean’. Lyrics from the song Games People Play (1968) by Joe South sum up the fact that few people say what they mean. Ever.
According to net language course provider, Word Power, in the days of Shakespeare/Milton (say 16th and 17th centuries), the English vocabulary contained about 60,000 words. Today, it’s well over a million and growing. If words are the building blocks of thinking, then accurate language is vital.
Statements of the Obvious
On a day with particularly strong weather, people will invariably point out to somebody else things like: ‘What a lovely day!’ or ‘A bit cold today!’ This, as if the person receiving these pearls of wisdom was completely unaware of the same weather. ‘Drive carefully!’ is another equally unnecessary remark.
When something or somebody comes into view or something happens, attention is drawn with things like: ‘Just look at that! Did you see that?’ Again, as if the other person missed it when they didn’t or couldn’t. This is particularly annoying to many, when both parties are watching the same thing, as at a show or in the cinema.
People ask obvious questions. ‘Can I borrow a piece of paper?’ Will it be given back after use? Or to somebody sitting by a clearly unoccupied chair: ‘Is this seat taken?’ They make definitive statements if a thing is lost: ‘Well, where did you last see it?’ Clearly, if the other one knew that, it wouldn’t be lost. The crowning touch on this is: ‘It’s always in the last place you look’. Of course it is!
Sometimes the obvious is couched in terms of wisdom or folklore: ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it’. Most people would demand, ‘why not?’.
People speak in oxymorons: contradictions, mixing impossible opposites. ‘Near-miss’, ‘friendly fire’ and ‘perfect storm’ are more recent additions to this infamous lexicon. Clearly, ‘near-hit’ would be more accurate, fire from enemy or ally guns still kills and a perfect storm actually means a conjunction of bad events, implying imperfection.
How many products are relaunched under the banner ‘New and Improved’? Either they are one or the other, not both simultaneously. ‘Posted to your door’ is meaningless, since where else would it be posted? ‘Victimless crime’ is just an excuse to justify some act, and ‘unknown identity’ cannot be.
Sometimes they are created for political, training or poetical reasons. Eyes Wide Shut and Rebel Without a Cause made good film titles. ‘Expect the Unexpected’ is a useful one to warn people. ‘Clear as mud’, ‘calculated error’, ‘climb down’ and ‘cold sweat’ are understood, but ultimately inaccurate. Others include: ‘among the first’, ‘almost exactly’, ‘authentic replica’, ‘crisis management’, ‘countless numbers’, ‘fresh dried fruit’, ‘more time’, ‘flurry of inactivity’, ‘fighting for peace’ and ‘going nowhere’.
‘Militant pacifist’, ‘gunboat diplomacy’, ‘removable sticker’, ‘unsolved mystery’, ‘unbiased opinion’, ‘small fortune’, ‘silent testimony’, ‘staged accident’ and ‘zero deficit’ are everyday phrases. Only when they are thought about, do they become technically ridiculous. Equally, ‘ill fortune’, ‘hopelessly optimistic’, ‘instant classic’, ‘increasingly little’ and ‘numbing sensation’ share the same contradictions.
‘Oven fried’, ‘old news’, ‘preliminary conclusion’, ‘moving target’, ‘loud whisper’ and ‘Loners’ Club’ are in the same league. Others are created tongue-in-cheek for amusement: ‘convenience store’, ‘customer service’, ‘government efficiency’, ‘political promises’, ‘express train’, ‘gourmet hamburger’, ‘private email’, ‘non-working mother’ and ‘weather forecaster’.
Verbosity and Tautology
Furthermore, some people say what they mean to such an extent, copiously and fully, that virtually all point is lost in saying it. Verbosity is an expression of needlessly excessive words, in what is also described as verbiage, long-windedness, prolixity, pleonasm and verbal diarrhea.
It can be used as a characterisation in literature, play or film, or even as a rhetorical device, but in spoken everyday English, it can be hard work to follow. Examples include: ‘at this moment in time’ (now); ‘a tiny little young child’; ‘to infinity and beyond’ and ‘the long and the short of it’. Some use the term ‘to cut a long story short‘ when that is the last thing they do. It’s rarely clear whether they mean it in a postmodern ironic way. (And postmodern itself is an oxymoron).
Dictionary.com summarises tautology as needless repetition of an idea through additional words that add little, such as ‘widow woman’, ‘free gift’ or ‘this candidate will win, or not win’, and which repeat elements of meaning already conveyed, as in ‘will these supplies be adequate enough?’ Adequate is itself, neither enough nor not.
A version of Murphy’s Law has it: ‘Yes or no? The eternal tautology’. Having said all that and in fairness, oxymorons, antitheses, paradoxes and other tortuous distortions of language occur to great effect in literature. Word Power claimed these devices as old but common in poetry especially. The ‘deafening silence’ is a profound image explored in Paul Simon’s song The Sound of Silence. Language would be poorer if people couldn’t tinker with it.
First published on Suite 101, 25 February 2011.
Image: A Lovely Day: Statement of the Obvious – David