This week is about vicious word-choices. Up today: repetition.
Learning by rote has been banished to the domain of crafts, sports, and foreign-languages studies. Although, even there we first ask why? Certainly with unfamiliar words, we’re encouraged to memorise by association and etymological inference, to think about them before repeating, repeating, repeating.
Passive acceptance of knowledge is equated with boredom, unintelligence, accidie. Which won’t do: smart multitasking is the emblem of the successful twenty-first century man. (Heap scorn on the art of reverie and creative procrastination, which are best done while completing some innocuous action by rote.)
Also mechanised memorisation smacks of “robot”, and “robot” smacks of “subhuman”, or worse, of “brain washing”.
Perhaps I should I update my vocabulary: not paying attention to data intake is like opening up our brains to information from unverified sources and then making sure we remember every dubitable factoid by parroting it to others. (Once incorporated into a belief system, fake news ossifies to prejudice, and prejudice is a long-term affliction—just a hunch.)
It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective, and it’s gone down in the world. Even its origin seems unclear—most likely to do with roundness (rota) or repetitiveness (rotative), in both senses related to musical composition. Of all the early entries in the OED, I prefer the 1623 example taken from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (iii. ii. 56):
Now it lyes you on to speake to th’ people … with such words That are but roated in your Tongue.
It’s quite fitting that one should think of words as being roted (I almost wrote rooted) in one’s tongue, like second-nature reflexes—which is what speaking becomes in healthy adults. But it’s also a fitting quote because it pinpoints where tongue meets memory meets ear in the musical nexus of the language.
These are the figures of speech that repeat parts of words, as small as letters, as large as syllables. They’re the ones rolling through a mellifluous lullaby, along with the languorous flow of Lethe, and through the murmur of cinnamon under an aurora. Even when meaning departs, their sounds remain to bombinate and tintinnabulate within the mind’s ear, offering reassurances of naturality through onomatopoeia, and of civilisation through recurring linguist pattern.
There are also figures that repeat words, plain or with a twist (e.g. polyptoton); there are figures that take the structure of a phrase and echo it across sentences (e.g. isocolon). But the repetition occurs in spontaneous speech, as well as, in trained exposition because it’s pleasing and memorable, and it’s a shortcut to attention via sheer biology.
That’s why mnemonic devices.
That’s why poetry.
(Repetition as a carrier of parallel structures and obscure, implied meaning; an example of anaphora.)
So what is there not to like? Taken to the extreme any figure of repetition is too noticeable, too unpalatable, like an over-seasoned dish, and when a notion is based on it—such as rote—it becomes hard to swallow, eft and eft. Most often we hear of:
- tautologia (repeating an idea in different words),
- pleonasm (using grammatically superfluous words),
- circumlocution or periphrasis (substituting descriptions for proper names, or using euphemisms).
However, in this post, I’d like to focus on a less famous figure call paroemiton, defined as extreme alliteration. Indeed, Noah Lukeman admonishes against it in his book on writing, The First Five Pages.
No matter how used, alliterations have a strong presence and must be tempered. When overused they can make a manuscript sound juvenile, like forced poetry.
Spouting an arbitrary paroemiton is easy but also rather pointless (pea pods parade proudly poolside), therefore I would prefer to give a few real-life examples. To do so, however, I would either have to reach into antiquity, or else critique more recent efforts at the risk of appearing mean or petty.
I suggest a compromise: yet more headlines from Nature Magazine. By giving them in bulk, I’m not singling any one of them out, nor am I actually claiming they don’t work within context. The final judgement is up to the reader.
A creeping corporate culture
Cancer’s cruel chimaeras
Coral crisis captured
Disks back from the dead
Ethical embryo editing
First fluorescent frog found
How fish feel the flow
How music meets mind
Pathways of parallel progression
Poker-playing digital duo deals defeat to human pros
Taming tangled tau
I’ll also include a few titles with assonance, rhyme, and isocolon for completeness, as they too have repetitive elements (but are not paroemitons strictly speaking).
Keen insights from quinoa
Award for reward
The feline line
Clouds unfazed by haze
Big brain, big data
By students, for students
New year, new aim
Nature is a serious weekly research journal. That such “playful” headlines make it into publication is indicative of—can it be—tongue-in-cheek humour? Or perhaps a desire to—yet again—hook readers into reading articles otherwise dense with scientific detail? I’m not sure, and I’d be curious to see whether any of the listed titles would be the top choice in a popular vote if presented alongside two other, less alliterative alternatives.
I’m not saying I can do better; I am, however, wondering if this is the best that the pinnacle of scientific research publishing can do.
It may just be the world we live in: there’s so little to smile about, we’ll take even the basic type of punning whenever we can.