Sunday 16 May 2010

On useful tautology

A correspondent from the Guardian has asked what is to be made of David Cameron's reported comment that 'Our success will be the measure of our success' - also reported as 'This will succeed through its success'. Reporters have picked on this, and other remarks such as 'All the questions were rather subjecty subjects', as evidence of a new linguistic style, dubbed 'Cameronisms'. In fact, there's nothing new about them at all.

Let's take the 'success' example first. Tautology is usually thought of as something to be avoided. But there are occasions when saying the same thing twice actually has a purpose. We need to 'state the obvious', and in so doing, say something that is not obvious at all. If I return from a restaurant, and somebody asks me what the food was like, and I say 'You get what you get', that is saying more than what the words suggest. The food was pretty ordinary. There are dozens of cases like this.

It's as long as it's long.
It takes what it takes.
A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
I'll be ready when I'm ready [and not before!]

Why do we say such things? The usual intention is to halt a dialogue. The speaker doesn't want to go into any further detail. There's no more to be said.

Depending on the context, these remarks can be interpreted in various ways (which in linguistics would be part of the subject of pragmatics). They could be an avoidance strategy: 'I don't want to go into this any further'. They could be an assertive strategy: 'Don't ask me pointless questions when I've got a job to do'. And there are other possibilities. A lot depends on the tone of voice in which the words are said.

We learn the value of tautology at an early age. Children encounter it all the time.

'Why is it time for bed, mummy?' 'Because it's time for bed.'
The beanstalk was as big as big could be.

The success example reminds me a little of the kind of word-class conversion which is such an important part of English grammar, and which is an important feature of Shakespeare's style. 'Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle', says the Duke of York to Bolingbroke (in Richard II). As the Guardian reporter put it, rather cheekily, Cameron may have more in common with Shakespeare than George Bush. I'd rather say that what Cameron is doing here is echoing a proverbial strand of the language: 'Nothing succeeds like success' - one success will lead to another.

Nor is there anything new about the formation subjecty. A -y suffix means 'having the qualities of' the noun to which it is added, or 'full of' the noun. Rainy and wintry date from Anglo-Saxon times. Among dozens of later examples we find milky, leafy, and noisy. Modern coinages include doggy and horsy. Some are awkward: skyey, treey. Again, there are echoes of Shakespeare, who liked to coin words such as vasty, steepy, and plumpy.

So, a 'subjecty subject' would be a subject that is characterized by a recognized subject-matter, or one that has already been explored to the full, or one that requires more exposition than there is currently time to go into, or other such meanings. We'd have to explore the context to determine exactly what Cameron meant. But, whatever he meant, the novelty of the phrase may guarantee it a place in the catch-phrases of the next decade - much as Donald Rumsfeld's 'known unknowns' did for him a few years ago.


David Crosbie said...

There's just been a nice tautology on Radio 4.

Howard Sounes, biographer of Bob Dylan, was researching the real events evoked in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

The son of one of the attorneys described the real William Zantzintger as close to Dylan's portrait in that he

... rode roughshod over people, because that's what he did.

I've already offered my own contribution here. On another thread I repeated my regular comment on Present Perfect use in English.

Some things are difficult because they're difficult

I don't do this to halt the dialogue. Rather, it's an attempt to reassure students that there's no easy solution that they are missing through personal failing. It's difficult because it's difficult.

R A Harless said...

I've noticed lately the growing use of the phrase "It is what it is." This rather zen statement is used to explain the unexplainables in life.

Mike Church said...

An interesting read as ever, thank you. And very timely, as just this very morning my colleague was telling me how he had asked a student, "How long have you been married?", and to which she had replied as quick as a flash, "I've been married since I've been married", as if to say, "This conversation is going nowhere."

DC said...

David: You may not mean it that way, but the perlocutionary effect could be the same as a put-down. I would find it difficult to know how to continue the conversation, after such a remark. A lot depends on the intonation, of course, as I mention in the post.

David Crosbie said...

It's difficult because it's difficult was a rehearsed spiel that I used repeatedly as a teacher. It never acted as a put-down because I always explained and expanded.

Virtual Linguist said...

@RA Harless
I was a guest on an American radio station last week, when listeners rang or emailed in with their least favourite expressions. "It is what it is" was the number one bugbear. I hadn't heard of it before doing the research for the programme, but soon learnt that it is designed to halt the conversation, as Professor Crystal says in his post. Sports managers tend to say "It is what it is" after a bad match, meaning "Stop asking me questions and go away". Personally, I couldn't help thinking of Popeye and his catchphrase "I am what I am...".

Mike Church said...

My last comment on this topic, I promise . . .

My wife has just said to me, "The more you eat, the more you eat". And she has a point.

DH said...

My favourite tautologim of the moment is "the world is going increasingly global" from Carlos Ghosn on the BBC, among others.

Lynn Gwisstix said...

Que sera sera.

Unknown said...

And the best 'subjecty subject' joke:

Q. What's brown and sticky?
A. A stick.