Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
If you drive an hour from my house, you can get to an Indiana city named Gas City. If you drive into town, you’ll reach the City of Gas City City Hall. Did they have to do this to themselves? I like to think that the person who decided on this name did it in an attempt to be saucy. Yet, today you can visit the City of Gas City City Hall. While this is incredibly repetitive, it’s not an example of tautology.
Tautology is a form of repetition where the same thing is said twice using different words. In the City of Gas City City Hall, you’re saying the same thing three times using the same words. We get the word “tautology” from the Greek noun “tautologos,” meaning “repeating what is said.” The Gas City example is an instance of tautophony, which is the repetition of the same sound.
Here’s a sarcastic use of tautology by one of my heroes, Mark Twain: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” In an age of limited bandwidth and diminished attention spans, brevity is not only the soul of wit, as Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet,” but brevity is the soul of effective communication.
Can you repeat that again? That’s a prime example of tautology. How about this one: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” This is one of my favorite Yogi-isms, which is the official term for off-the-wall quotes from legendary baseball hall-of-famer Yogi Berra. It’s also redundant and unnecessary. I did it right there; I didn’t need to say redundant AND unnecessary; only one of the words is sufficient.
I suppose if you’re writing poetry, you have an implicit right to exercise tautology to your heart’s content. In areas where you have space to hammer home your meaning, feel free to employ tautology. I think that—in general—we have the poetic capacity of a haiku; every syllable and breath counts.
Maybe I’m beating a dead horse (a.k.a. committing idiomatic tautology) by writing an entire article on tautology. Perhaps I could have simply said, “Be brief and then be done.” However, I felt it necessary to explore the proverbial halls of the City of Tautology City City Hall.