Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Do It — And Then Possibly Do It Again

A new candidate for the title “worthless word”: redouble, especially when referring to quantifiable amounts and not a general, vague increase.

American Heritage Dictionary offers the definitions “to double,” “to repeat,” and, when referring to bridge, “to double the doubling bid.” Webster, however, gives “to double is size or amount,” the archaic “to echo back or “repeat.” Only Wiktionary — the accuracy of which, yes, cannot be trusted, yes, yes — offers the non-bridge-related definition that I feel like anyone encountering it for the first time would intuit, “to double, especially to double again,” which I feel would be used synonymously with “to quadruple.”

Outside of the context of a bridge game, I can’t imagine why anyone would use this word when it seems like a variety of other words could be used to accurately convey whichever meaning he or she intended.

8 comments:

  1. "Redouble" sounds like something they'd have on the dollar menu at a fast food place.

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  2. "redouble" meaning "double" is attested from 1477. The redundant prefix is actually not so weird. For instance you could argue that the prefixes on all these are meaningless: radiate, irradiate; ravel, unravel; bone, debone; thaw, unthaw.

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  3. Goofy: I actually have issues with a lot of those words, though more often with the ones without prefixes. Often, they can mean either one thing or its opposite. Wordplay opportunities aside, they can hamper communication.

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  4. Of the words I gave, I think only ravel and bone have contradictory meanings. But do you have real evidence of words like these hampering communication? I had a look at the citations in the OED for "ravel" and they're all clear to me.

    There are lots of words that have contradictory meanings: dust, trim, cleave, sanction, clip, scan, quite, root. I'm not saying that these words might not sometimes cause confusion, but
    I tend to think that if they really did hamper communication to a great extent, we wouldn't use them.

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  5. I think the words with the prefixes can be problematic in that someone familiar with only one form --- that is, the prefixed or non-prefixed versions --- could make the mistake that one the unfamiliar version means the opposite of the familiar. A good example is the corny old joke about someone finding out the wrong way that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. Most people know they mean the same thing, but someone who is familiar with only flammable and who has a working understanding of how prefixes and suffixes work in English could very well hear inflammable and assume that it means the opposite of flammable, much in the way that the definition of possible changes to mean the opposite when you ad the im- prefix. I know it’s a different prefix, but it doesn’t look different and you can’t hate a person for trying to make sense of something by using the only logic they know. People don’t carry dictionaries around with them at all times, and it’s the snap decisions that people make about what someone else says that I’m more concerned with here.

    Take radiate and irradiate. If you used regular and irregular as the model --- and why wouldn’t you, logically? --- you could well assume that irradiate means the opposite. I have never heard the term unthaw, but if someone mentioned it to me, I would not immediately think they were talking about thawing. Why should they? The word is clearly constructed to seem like the opposite of the concept. The fact that both exist is confusing and needless, even in a language like English, in which a speaker has a plethora of words to chose from to express a given concept, each with its own shade of meaning.

    It’s less likely, but similar confusion could result from someone familiar with the concept of deboning a fish being told to bone a fish. “You mean you want me to put the bones back in?” someone could say, baffled and embarrassed. (Don’t think it’s completely impossible. I have said stupider things in my life.) As a someone who is clueless about food but who also is frequently tasked with buying groceries for recipes that other people make, I have thought about how I could easily overthink what the phrase “shelled peanuts” means and end up buying two packages --- one in shells, one removed from shells.

    As funny as I think these situations might be, I also feel like language is at its best when it’s clear, so I therefore must say that these are just a bit problematic.

    In response to the notion that confusing words fall out of use, I will point out the three kings of the Land of Useless Words: biweekly, bimonthly, and biannually. They’re unspeakably useless in that there’s often no way of telling whether, for example, biweekly means “every two weeks” or “twice a week,” even in context. We have semiweekly, which means “twice a week,” but I feel like people are often unfamiliar with the term. The easiest solution is to just say “twice a week” or “every two weeks,” but those take up space --- and in my business, fewer words is almost always better. It would be easier if there were just a single word that carries the full meaning and which would be immediately understood.

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  6. I see your point that words like these are potentially ambiguous. But are they effectively ambiguous? Is there evidence that they really cause confusion? Show me the numbers. Lots of things in language are potentially ambiguous, but that's what context is for.

    I really would like to see real-world examples. I'm willing to be proven wrong. I suspect that examples with (in)flammable, biweekly, etc do exist, but I'm not as confident about (ir)radiate, (un)ravel etc.

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  7. Not sure how to dig such examples up, aside from people's anecdotes on the subject. Personally, I can attest to the frustration I had to deal with after I advertised that my daily paper was looking for a new biweekly columnist. Even though any of the paper's columnists never ran more than once a week, a lot of people wrote in asking what the ad had meant. Even more frustrating, a lot of them just assumed one meaning or the other.

    As for flammable, there's a note on the American Heritage Dictionary entry that recommends using flammable to be ensure clarity, especially in a warning.

    http://www.bartleby.com/61/47/F0164700.html

    As for irradiate and radiate, I suppose we could conduct a test in which the subjects must chose between entering a room marked "YOU WILL BE RADIATED" and another marked "YOU WILL BE IRRADIATED" and see which one people chose. I'm not sure what this would prove, exactly, but it would be funny and we can give gold starts to people who pick neither.

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  8. Back to redouble, irradiate, unravel etc: I think there's an element of intensifier to prefixes like these. Just like "be-", "for-" and "dis-" were used as intensifiers, perhaps "ir-", "de-", "re-", "un-" were used to intensify the meaning, and the meaning was gradually worn down. In fact "un-" does have an intensive meaning in "unloose" (found in Old English), unsolve, unbare.

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