Special Subject: The Bleeding Obvious
"It means no parking at all," Paddy sagely informs our guest.
"I see. So what do those double yellow lines mean?" inquires the American, leaning in further.
"No parking at all, at all," comes the earnest reply.
I bring this up because an Eastern European vistor recently asked me a related question, and for the life of me I can't think of a decent answer. What does the popular political phrase "We are where we are" actually mean? Why do we so often in conversation repeat phrases that merely equate something with itself?
It's a particularly Irish mode of expression, this redundant tautology. Witness:
"It is what it is."
"We'll know when we know."
"What's done is done."
"It's nice to be nice."
This sort of nonsense utterly baffles and confounds the good sense of our more practical and logical, plain spoken European migrants. Why can't we make more sense, they wonder (often aloud).
I can't put my finger on what we are trying to express with these phrases that often sound like some sort of autistic reassurance. Nevertheless, while it may make me appear a simpleton when I intone the word formula "x = x", it seems somehow, I don't know, reassuring and philosophical?
"Sure, if it rains it rains."
We can't fully claim this style of linguistic symmetry for ourselves of course, the poet Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter sometime around 1850: "The heart wants what it wants." And who could forget Getrude Stein's famous triple equivalency, "A rose is a rose is a rose." I'm still hoping someday for the elusive quadruple-barrelled version.
Well, I'm sure we'll talk again so, as I told my Eastern European friend to his eternal consternation, "I'll see you when I see you."(†)
- † It was the inimitable Basil Fawlty who suggested that his wife Sybil might take the "Bleedin' Obvious" as her special subject should she ever decide to compete in Mastermind. [back ↩]