Irritations: Obnoxious pleonasms
We reported in The Sun this week that President Bush “proposed new initiatives” in his State of the Union speech. An initiative is an action or proposal that is started or introduced. The word comes from the Latin initiare, “to begin.” So an initiative is a beginning, something new, and “new initiative” is redundant except in cases that contrast an initiative with previous acts or proposals.
“New initiative” is a tautology, a repetition of a meaning in different words. Or, if you like, it is a pleonasm (from the Greek pleon, “more”), or redundancy of expression. Pleonasms can constitute repetitions for deliberate effect, as in William Faulkner’s Nobel speech about the “old verities and truths of the heart,” but they are most commonly errors.
Journalism is littered with redundant expressions:
Advance planning: Planning is, by definition, done in advance.
Close scrutiny: To scrutinize is to examine closely.
Consensus of opinion: A consensus is an opinion that a group of people have come to share.
Final results: The result is the outcome, the final thing. This tautology turns up in articles about elections, in which speaking of early returns and final returns would be more accurate.
Mass exodus: The word exodus means the departure of a large group of people. Adding mass adds nothing.
Safe haven: A favorite of pretentious bureaucrats. A haven is a safe place; a safe haven would be a safe safe place. This subliterate phrase is presumably the result of confusion with safe harbor. A harbor can be a safe or an exposed anchorage, which makes that distinction meaningful.
And there are a number of misunderstood abbreviations:
ATM machine: It’s an automated (not automatic) teller machine.
HIV virus: Human immunodeficiency virus.
PIN number: Personal identification number.
The expression SAT test used to be redundant, when the initials stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test or Scholastic Assessment Test. But the Educational Testing Service has decided to use the initials only, asserting that SAT does not mean anything. I am not inclined to dispute that.