The managing editor of a large publishing house recently posted this Andy Rooney–like screed as his Facebook status update: “[ ] wants to remind you yet again to stop using the phrase ‘atm machine,’ as the ‘m’ in ‘atm’ stands for ‘machine’ – it’s not an atm machine machine! Comments piled up enviably, from fellow editors bemoaning the use of PIN number, ISBN number, HIV virus, SAT test, past history, and free gift. What, exactly, is the usage that is being bemoaned?
Inherent in each of those acronyms is the word that follows them: ATM = Automated Teller Machine; SAT = Standardized Aptitude Test; PIN = Personal Identification Number; HIV = Human Immunodeficiency Virus; and so on. Whoever says, “I had to go to the ATM machine again for Christmas cash!” is indeed repeating him- or herself. Correct usage dictates that we not do such things.
But what of “free gift” and “past history”? How correct, or incorrect, are these locutions? First off, they are not oxymorons. They are the opposite. Oxymorons are two-word phrases in which the words seem to contradict each other, such as jumbo shrimp and military intelligence (two of the late comic George Carlin’s faves).
Two-word phrases in which the same idea is expressed in two different ways are tautologies (from the Latin and Greek)—like free gift. Two-word phrases in which the second word is totally unneeded because its meaning is found in the first word are pleonasms (from the Greek and Latin). Both imply redundancy; both irritate the heck out of devotees of Strunk & White’s dictum: “Omit needless words.”
Pleonasms include round circles and enormous giants. “Personally, I” is one. And I find them usually idiomatic and often unworthy of either comment or outrage. However, some turn editors into hair-pulling screamers.
That list includes PIN number, HIV virus, and similar pairs. Some usage observers have humorously proposed calling these not tautologies or pleonasms but examples of RAS syndrome, or Redundnat Acronym Syndrome syndrome, which is what happens when folks repeat a word in an acronym after the acronym itself.
In 1964, the Searchers had a big hit (is there such thing as a small hit?) with “Needles and Pins,” in which they sang, “I had to run away and get down on my knees and pray / That they’d go away / But still they begin / Needles and pins / Because of all my pride / The tears I gotta hide.”
Probably a good idea in the New Year for all of us to avoid forcing editors to run away, pray, and cry because of tautologies, pleonasms, and the like. Let us not poke them with PIN numbers.