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Tom’s words

Escapades in etymology

By Tom Chatfield   April 2008

Although both denote the unnecessary use of words, a “tautology” (from the Greek tautologos, “the same word”) is not quite the same thing as a “pleonasm” (from the Greek pleonasmos, “an excess”). Tautology involves saying precisely the same thing twice—”a one-off, unique object”—and is as vital to logic as it is redundant in everyday speech. Pleonasm, however, is a more nebulous species of superfluity: a verbal sin that, often, we may not even be aware we’re committing.

In Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, for example, one character scolds another for daring to talk about “pastoral nomads.” The phrase is a pleonasm,…

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