Quite often people speak in phrases, not words, because a couple of words strung together usually carry a more precise or nuanced meaning. These phrases or idioms are extremely common because they’re the shortest way to communicate certain details, which means they’re very efficient — and living things, like people, love efficiency because it affords us to be lazier and waste less energy. Some examples: saber rattling, name dropping, facing the music, backing down.
But, as with everything, there’s a dark side: idioms that are the epitome of inefficiency because they come with extraneous words which waste a couple of seconds every time we use them — words that are completely unnecessary to getting the point across. These redundant idioms — known as pleonasms — made their way into the common tongue, and now they’re used by everyone, without thinking about what their constituent words actually mean. Everyone, that is, except the Grammar Nazis at Mental Floss, who came up with a list of some common ones that other Grammar Nazis can now use to feel superior. But you can also use it for good, to speak with brevity and enlightenment, and feel superior for that reason alone:
- Nape of the neck: there’s no nape of anything else, so just say “nape”
- False pretense: is there a true pretense? Maybe technically, but no one’s going to say that “John is doing that under a true pretense.” Pretenses are false all the time, because pretentious people suck.
- Frozen tundra: all tundra is frozen — that’s the definition of it.
- Gnashing of teeth: you can’t gnash anything else, because then it wouldn’t be gnashing. Teeth are an integral part of gnashing, so this phrase is like “blinking of eyelids.”
- Head honcho: the term honcho comes from Japanese, where it means “group leader”. But even in English, there’s no head honcho and assistant honcho — there’s only one honcho.
- Bleary-eyed: face it, no one has any idea what “bleary” means: that you’re tired and foggy. But you can’t be bleary-nosed, or bleary-eared so you can safely say you woke up “bleary”.
- Veer off-course: ever heard of veering on-course?
- Safe haven: what kind of haven would it be, if it weren’t safe? “Dangerous haven” is an oxymoron. There’s a woody forest and wet stream near that safe haven.
- Ford a river: this phrase realistically has no use outside of The Oregon Trail, but you can’t ford a lake, or a forest or a mountain or anything but a river.
Keep in mind that if your purpose is efficiency, which is why idioms exist, then using even these redundant ones is in your best interest: if you start talking about a girl’s nape or that your friend was gnashing, you’re going to get into a longer discussion about why you’re speaking like a weirdo. But if your purpose is to prove how smart you are, then that discussion will do wonders.
Of course, there’s also the nerd’s purpose: to make things more efficient in the long run. Sure, it’ll take longer to have that discussion a few times, but in a few short years, speaking will be so much more efficient that all the time invested in lengthy discussions about idioms will be paid back in spades. AND you get to look like a Renaissance man while changing the world for the better. Win/win/win!