Old ancient ancestors
Figure of speech. Responding to the professor's
idea that Romans and English people are strangely preoccupied
with hygiene, Lenehan ludicrously observes that our "Our old
ancient ancestors, as we read in the first chapter of
Guinness's, were partial to the running stream." Old ancient
rhetoricians knew this kind of verbal piling-on as tautologia,
the unnecessary repetition of the same idea in different
words. Sometimes they referred to it instead as pleonasm.
Aeolus contains several examples of such redundancy.
The old rhetorical sense of tautology (taw-TOHL-uh-gee, from
Greek tauto = the same + logia = saying, word)
differs significantly from the modern logical meaning. Today
tautology is usually understood as a statement that is always
true because it cannot logically be false. Saying that "The
earth is either spherical or flat" will strike most people as
valid only because it encompasses both of the mutually
contradictory available hypotheses. The common human response
to tautologies of this sort is, "Well, duh!"
Although the understanding of tautology as an unfalsifiable statement is the dominant one today, all good English dictionaries still list among the word's meanings (usually, indeed, as the primary meaning) something like this definition in the American Heritage Dictionary: "Needless repetition of the same sense in different words; redundancy." Saying "the ATM machine" is tautological because the ATM is a machine, and entering "a PIN number" into it is absurd because the PIN is a number. This sense of the word goes back to ancient Greece. The Latin rhetoricians treated tautology as a stylistic vice, in contrast to many good sorts of repetition. Henry Peacham wrote in The Garden of Eloquence that "Tautologia is a tedious and wearisome repetition of one word."
Lenehan's "old ancient ancestors" is certainly wearisome. Simply saying "ancestors" would suffice; making them "ancient" and then describing these ancients as "old" adds two layers of tediousness. Later in the chapter he indulges the same impulse slightly more wittily while aping overblown parliamentary language: "That it be and hereby is resolutely resolved." To resolve something means to make a resolution, just as having resolve means being resolute, and to be is just another way of saying is. Mr. O'Madden Burke practices similar verbal overkill when he praises Bloom's wife as "The vocal muse, Dublin's prime favourite." If Molly is Dublin's favorite soprano, she hardly needs to be awarded the "prime" spot. Gilbert and Seidman both identify this last expression as pleonasm (PLEE-uh-naz-um, a Greek word meaning "superabundance"), which Seidman defines as "the use of more words in a sentence than necessary to express the meaning; redundancy." Exactly what difference may separate this term from tautology, if there is one, is beyond me.
Richard Nordquist (www.thoughtco.com) notes that George
Carlin had fun with both terms in "Count the Superfluous
Redundant Pleonastic Tautologies," a section in When Will
Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? (2004): "I needed a new
beginning, so I decided to pay a social visit to a personal
friend with whom I share the same mutual objectives and who is
one of the most unique individuals I have ever personally met.
The end result was an unexpected surprise. When I reiterated
again to her the fact that I needed a fresh start, she said I
was exactly right; and, as an added plus, she came up with a
final solution that was absolutely perfect. Based on her past
experience, she felt we needed to join together in a common
bond for a combined total of twenty-four hours a day, in order
to find some new initiatives. What a novel innovation! And, as
an extra bonus, she presented me with the free gift of a tuna
fish. Right away I noticed an immediate positive improvement.
And although my recovery is not totally complete, the sum
total is I feel much better now knowing I am not uniquely
The ancient rhetoricians understood that repeating the same concept in different words is not always a bad idea, and they named the good sibling synonymia. As an example of that device Gideon Burton (rhetoric.byu.edu) cites the line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which the tribune Murellus calls the plebeians "You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!" (1.1.35). In King Lear Kent performs the same generation of synonyms at far greater length in his hilarious string of abusive synonyms for Oswald (2.2.15-23).