A Retort to Mark Twain’s Assertion — or Peeve

Mark Twain sitting in deck chairIn Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, he takes exception with our convention of avoiding proximal repetition of word.

The Germans do not seem to be afraid to repeat a word when it is the right one. They repeat it several times, if they choose. That is wise. But in English, when we have used a word a couple of times in a paragraph, we imagine we are growing tautological, and so we are weak enough to exchange it for some other word which only approximates exactness, to escape what we wrongly fancy is a greater blemish. Repetition may be bad, but surely inexactness is worse.

As clever and experienced as America’s greatest humorist was, I’m going to take (brief) exception with this thinking.

Though I’m sure the Germans (and Herr Twain) would like to have it otherwise, allowing any dictionary to drop open will demonstrate that there is no such thing as an exact word. Not only does a single word have many official definitions, each person orders those definitions differently. A list of the sources of variation would be an interesting project.

Given the inexact ambiguity of language, employing multiple words allows for triangulation and increases the chances of communication. After all, words are only approximations. The more data points (within reason), the better the conclusions.

Please share your thoughts. They make a difference.


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