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Between beriberi and very, very:
In Praise of Useful Waste,
Or, Tautological Compounds

By Anatoly Liberman

Language is unbelievably redundant.  For example,
vowels are called vowels because voice (Latin vox; compare Engl. voc-al)
is an inalienable part of their production.  Yet a word said in a whisper,
that is, without the participation of voice, will not be lost. In a
language in which the gender, number, and case of adjectives agree with those
of the nouns they modify, endings are repeated in both words.  The Latin
phrase pulchrarum rosarum (“of beautiful roses”) informs us that rosa
and pulchra have the form of the genitive plural, though one
indication would have been enough (English has a plural ending in roses
but no corresponding ending in beautiful).  A similar situation
occurs when a verb agrees in number and gender with the subject of a sentence:
both are in the singular or in the plural, in the masculine or in the
feminine.  In the continental Scandinavian languages, two definite
articles exist.  One is of the same type as English the, the other
is appended to a noun like a suffix.  In some situations both have to be
used, as in Swedish det nya huset “the new
house.”  The “definiteness” of hus “house” is clearly
overspecified.  In the phrases pick and choose and by
leaps and bounds, the second word (choose, bounds) only
reinforces the first.  To remain an efficient means of communication,
language needs extra protection.  A curious case of redundancy is
tautological compounds.

I became aware of these compounds while researching the
origin of the plant name henbane.  Bane, as in the bane
of my life,
is clear: it means “murder; death.”  The rest needed
elucidation.  Thus I had to retrace Claudius’s steps and find out what hebenon
means (the substance he poured into the ear of Hamlet’s father may have been a
concoction of henbane), but the greatest puzzle was the purported tie between
henbane and hens.  It turned out that hens hardly ever die of henbane
because they are not prone to seek it as a special dainty.   The Old
Germanic root hen- probably meant “death,” and an obscure god of death
called Henno may have existed.  If this conclusion is right, the original
meaning of henbane was “death-death.”

Another word that I investigated was ragamuffin.
Here the situation is more complex, but, in all likelihood, rag- is the
first syllable of a name for the devil in many countries of Europe, while muff-
“evil, ugly, detestable” (from French) is another name of the devil.  The
result is “devil-a-devil,” a word having the structure of cock-a-hoop or
jack-a-napes.  The name of the lizard slowworm should, if one of
the proposed etymologies is right, be understood as “snake-snake.”
Eventually, when the original meaning of ragamuffin and slowworm
had been forgotten, people began to think that ragamuffins are ragged and
slowworms are slow.  The process of associating an etymologically obscure
word with a word that is common and transparent is called folk etymology.
It is thanks to the naïve reinterpretation of opaque words by speakers
that hens emerge as the main casualties of henbane, ragamuffins discard good
clothes, and slowworms lose their agility.

Absolute tautology occurs only in nouns like beriberi,
which, in Singhalese, means literally “weakness-weakness,” or as we, with our
passion for overstatement and fear of not being heard, understood, or
appreciated, could say “a very, very great weakness.”  Its near homonym in
Germanic (approximately ber-ber) meant “brown-brown” and is the etymon
(source) of beaver.  Such words are uncommon, but the type with
interchangeable synonyms turns up with some regularity in both old and new
languages.  In Gothic, a Germanic language known to us from a 4th-century
translation of the New Testament, the compound marisaiws occurs once.
Mari (a cognate of mari- in maritime and of Engl. mere
“lake; sheet of water”; Grendel, a monster killed by Beowulf, lived with his
mother in a mere) means “sea”; saiws is, of course, also “sea.”
Perhaps there was more water in a marisaiws than in either a marei
or a saiws separately.   In German, Meersumpf
has been recorded, that is, “moor-swamp.”  Modern Engl. pathway, gangway,
and sledgehammer are typical tautological compounds.  In Russian
songs and folklore, one often hears puti-dorogi “ways-roads”
and gore-zloschast’e “misfortune-ill luck” (the stressed
vowels are given in bold).  Personal and place names are not infrequently
made up of two close synonyms.  The Icelandic name Hallsteinn means

If someone today coined compounds like building-edifice,
hut-hovel, ewe-sheep,
or branch- bough, the product would sound odd,
even silly.  Yet our vocabulary contains many such formations, and they do
not irritate us.  They can be found in every language I have researched;
in dialects they are especially common (compare Engl. dial. lass-quean
and sea-loch, the latter being an analogue of marisaiws and Meersumpf).
In Middle English, short-lived tautological compounds consisting of an English
noun and its French “gloss” (in either order) enjoyed some popularity.
Such is courtyard, which has survived into the present.  The same
process has been observed in German.  It is to be regretted that no one
thought of compiling a dictionary of these compounds in the languages of the
world.  Such a dictionary would tell us many interesting things about
linguistic tastes, the power of bilingualism, and of the relation of thought to

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Jim

    Chinese is loaded with this kind of compound, where the high level of homophony makes them essential.

  2. Kathrin

    I have never heard or read the word “Meersumpf” in German. It may be very uncommon, but in any case it would mean “sea-swamp” rather than “moor-swamp”.

  3. Brianne Hughes

    I think ‘lukewarm’ might fit in the category of tautological compounds. Luke from M.E. leuk meaning tepid, (Latin tepere ‘to be warm’) and warm from O.E.

    Would redundant definite articles count as tautological as in ‘el alcohol’ in Spanish or ‘The El Camino’ the common name for a road called El Camino Real in California?

    Very interesting. I love the term. I’d be happy to compile a dictionary of tautological compounds. Thank you.

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