Needless repetition or necessary distinction?

Published 8:11 am Thursday, August 24, 2017

was having dinner with colleagues from my department recently when the topic of redundancy in language came up. One of my friends pointed out that the English language has a variety of food names that contain the same word twice.

For example when we say “rice pilaf” we are really saying the word “rice” twice because “pilaf” means rice in Armenian. Once we started thinking about it, it was amazing how many examples like “rice pilaf” we came up with. “Chili con carne” means chili with meat but it is not unusual to be offered “chili con carne with or without meat.” “Chai” is a Hindi word for tea but we commonly refer to this delightfully spicy beverage as chai tea, which literally means “tea tea.” Just as redundant are the phrases: “roast beef with au jus” since “au jus” is French for “with juice,” “soup du jour of the day” since “du jour” is French for “of the day,” and “queso cheese” since “queso” is Spanish for cheese. If you have heard “sheep’s milk pecorino” or “goat’s milk chevre” you have really heard one word too many. But these kinds of repetition are understandable.

Since few of us in the U.S. are bilingual in French, Hindi or Armenian, the native word does not convey its true meaning to us and we limit the new word’s meaning to a particular dish or drink. In this sense, then, its use is not redundant within English. Things do start to get confusing when we mix multiple languages within a name, for example, “chai tea latte.” From a linguistic perspective a chai tea latte is an almost uncomfortable mix of languages literally meaning “tea tea milk,” as latte is Italian for milk. In fact many U.S. visitors to Italy experience a serious disappointment when they order a “latte” and are served a cup of hot milk.

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Another example of confusion is bruschetta. In the U.S. we often use the word bruschetta — and yes it is phonetically brew-ske-ta with a hard “c” — to refer to a delicious topping made of chopped tomato, olive oil and basil. But in Italian bruschetta is actually toasted bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with olive oil. I can understand why Italians feel confused when they see bottled bruschetta on the shelf in a grocery store or when they find “bruschetta on toast points” on a fancy menu.

I, personally, feel very confused and just a bit nauseous when I read the advertising slogan “Velveeta plus Rotel; together they make queso.” I didn’t realize Velveeta was actually cheese or that queso had to be spicy. And speaking of unexpected associations, have you ever wondered how “a la mode” came to mean “with ice cream” in normal restaurant parlance? 

Linguistic confusion in food names is not unique to English. I have seen “chicken hamburgers” in Mexico and on the gulf coast of Costa Rica if you order “pesto” they bring you basil leaves.

Many examples of repetition that catch us unaware occur in geographical names. Some of these are the Sahara Desert, the Rio Grande River, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and the Mississippi River. Sahara means “desert” in Arabic, río means “river” in Spanish, sierra means “mountain range” in Spanish and Mississippi is an Algonquian word meaning “big river.”

If repetition in these kinds of cross linguistic phrases is understandable, what do we make of phrases that are clearly redundant within the language?

A few years ago, when I lived in Illinois, a local grocery store proudly advertised their “European French bread” in the bakery. I’m still not quite sure how that particular bread differed from their “normal” loaves of French bread. Other examples of gratuitous repetition are PIN number, ATM machine, VIN number, ISBN number and UPC code. Just as redundant are “radar detection,” since radar is an acronym for radio detection and ranging, “laser radiation,” since laser is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation and “AC current,” since AC is an acronym for alternating current.

Of course all of these examples make reference to an acronym in which the repeated word may not be as available to memory as we could hope it would be. As I close this column I leave you with the following frequently heard phrases.

They are “added bonus,” “free gift” and “new innovation.” You be the judge. Are they needlessly repetitive or do they serve to make a distinction impossible without the redundant idea?

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is