Ad Nauseam

On repetition as a rhetorical vice.

This week is about vicious word-choices. Up today: repetition.

Beautiful parrot pics are used to counterbalance any negative attitude towards parroting


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.)


Poor rote. 

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.

Actually not a parrot, but the common kingfisher with wind-mussed feathers. Thank you to Skyscapes for the Soul for pointing this out. See the comment section below.


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.

That’s why.

(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

Fantastic plastic

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.


Aww … Looking at this picture, who wouldn’t want to be a parrot?



Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

15 thoughts on “Ad Nauseam”

  1. hehehe!… great stuff
    I like paroemitons, but they can get tedious I agree.
    Recently I was writing about containers and I listed about ten examples that just all came to me in a moment, and they all started with ‘c’: crates, casks, caskets, etc..
    I have to admit once I got past the fourth or fifth, I had the bit between my teeth, and my mind started to search for them.
    What made the whole phrase, well… not just acceptable, but memorable (in all modesty 🙂 was I ended it with one that started with ‘t’… sorry at the moment I can’t remember what it was, but the abruptness of it made the list quite amusing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s hard to stop! The mind gravitates towards patterned repetitions—possibly because it’s easiest to stay in the same aural/visual neighbourhood then think of wholly different options. I find myself forcefully removing paroemiton after paroemiton in the editing process …

      If I understood correctly, you’re saying that you did a list of c-s, only to end it with a t? Sounds like an effective strategy for highlighting the last item, especially if it was already the odd-one-out in terms of meaning. Also, as you say, it’s abrupt and amusing 🙂


      1. yup… I think it was abrupt and amusing. Such repititions could be a bit heavy, so I guess to end with a ‘t’, and I still can’t remember what it was, said that the repititions of ‘c’ we’re a coincidence!… like hell they were, but anyway

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well, the interesting thing would be to investigate how come there are so many words with a similar meaning that start with the same consonant … I have a feeling they often come from the same root (cask, casket), but also that they might result from a cumulative preference of the human mind for alliteration.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. well I had to dig-out what I wrote, it was: caskets, chests, coffers, crates, containers, casks, cases and trunks of every proportion and design

        it strikes me that not only, like you say for their similarity, should cask and caskets be together, but also what order they should all be in?

        alphabetically is a bit of a contrivance, I think I usually, group them by something like size, particular use, or some kind abstract quality some of them might have, and it seems to read well.

        that said I don’t think I did it with the list above, but containers and chests would be the biggest down to say a case!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Cool! (Didn’t think I’d see the actual list!)

        The point about alphabetising—you’re right it feels like a contrivance, but then the best ordering depends on the purpose of the list. (I actually wrote something about this in a post I’m intending to put up on Wednesday … It’s almost like our little back-and-forth inspired a list-related post :P)


    1. Haha, which one is the kingfisher? (I tried looking for a crinolined kingfisher, couldn’t really find one on google just now …) Did you mean the third pic? Whatever bird that is (and I found it under “parrot” on unsplash), it’s got a hooked beak so I figured more parrot than kingfisher … But I’m no bird expert—please set me straight!

      Liked by 1 person

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