PM Theresa May does like her tautologies. First it was ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and now ‘Enough is enough.’ In semantics such expressions are treated as p →p. In pragmatics, where context comes in, it’s p →p ~>p (that is, saying p →p implies something greater than just p). But I can’t say this is the case with May’s use of this rhetorical device.
‘Brexit means Brexit’ was rightly criticised by many as being weak and uninformative as the public didn’t (and still don’t) know what Brexit means. In the months following this confusing declaration, the May government has hinted at a Brexit that would take the UK out of the single market altogether – the one thing that most of the country, including a portion who voted to leave the EU, don’t want. What else does Brexit mean? Leaving the EU will affect a large range of statutes and issues, which still haven’t been addressed by Theresa May. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has become a blanket to hide either the indecision and incompetence of those working on the Brexit project or to hide plans that would be unpopular with the electorate. Time will tell.
When I first heard May spouting out ‘Enough is enough’ in the aftermath of the latest terrorist attack to besiege the UK, I had a personal recollection of the last time I heard someone say that to me. It was actually in an email, so I hadn’t heard it, but I had heard the writer’s voice in my head. Without going into the unpleasant details of the long email thread, I was being attacked by someone with emotional and learning disabilities, who – being a relative – I felt obliged to respond to. My efforts to defend myself and clear the air were met with even more hostility and false accusations. My emails became shorter and shorter, saying that I wasn’t going to engage in this type of communication. And then it came – ‘Enough is enough!’ I was being scolded. The person who had scolded me had run out of things to say when she saw that I wasn’t sparring with her. I fear that Theresa May has reduced herself to this. Like my reaction to the relative scolding me, I find it amusing and a sign of weakness.
Have tautologies ever worked? First of all, I should say that I’m thinking of tautologies in the strictest sense. I’m excluding expressions such as Yogi Berra’s infamous ‘This is like déjà vu all over again.’ I would call that a redundant expression used by an inept speaker. For some, Hamlet’s ‘I’m reading words, words, words’ is also a tautology – for me, it’s repetition that effectively avoids and mocks Polonius. Yogi Berra is not saying ‘déjà vu is déjà vu’ and Hamlet is not saying ‘words mean words.’ With that aside, here are a couple of notable examples of tautologies that do work. Sometimes I find myself saying ‘It is what it is,’ perhaps much to others’ annoyance. For me, it’s a polite way of saying that you can’t change the situation so stop trying.
And finally, there is ‘love is love.’ It was just about to become worn out, having been the name of a Culture Club song and appearing on cheery posters, etc, when it was rescued by LGBT activists. This soft approach reminds those who are against gay rights that it all boils down to love. What kind of monster would be against that or argue with that? Of course, the monsters still exist, but the vast majority of people have come to accept gay rights. This has proved itself a meaningful and worthwhile tautology.