The Historical Roots of Redundant Synonyms

On a flight home from London on Sunday, I started reading The Stories of English, by David Crystal. Published in 2004, it’s a well-received, and well-rounded, study of the history of the English language. Perhaps not an obvious choice for airplane reading, but perfect for me, since it marries, in the opening chapters, my interests in language and in early medieval Britain. (Before I began the law thing, I spent several years immersed in English medieval archaeology.)

I took the opportunity to read what Crystal has to say about “doublets,” which I also refer to as redundant synonyms. (I’d previously read David Mellinkoff’s Language of the Law on this subject.) In panel 7.4, Crystal notes how during the thirteenth century French replaced Latin as the primary language of legal expression and how during the fifteenth century law French was gradually replaced by law English.

He goes on:

The problem was: how can tradition be respected yet precision maintained when there are three languages competing for attention? It is plain that lawyers spend a great deal of their time worrying about the precise signification of words …. So what words should be chosen when Latin, French, and English each provide a copious supply of relevant items? How does one choose between synonyms, or—even more difficult—between two words which seem to be synonymous, but which might just have enough differential meaning to allow a lawyer one day to make an argument based on the difference?

The solution in many cases, was: don’t choose; use both. In Middle English we see the rise of the legal lexical doublets which would become one of the stylistic hallmarks of that profession. Old English goods and Old French chattels resulted in Middle English legalese goods and chattels. The words were often paired to cover distinct nuances, thereby avoiding ambiguity; but sometimes the pairing seems to be no more than a more emphatic expressing of a single meaning; and sometimes it seems to be just a stylistic habit, perhaps fostered by its undoubted rhythmical appeal in oral performance. But whatever the reason, it became a major feature of legal style which continues to the present day.

Crystal provides examples of doublets, triplets, and even quadruplets. He notes that it wasn’t long before the habit of doubling became extended to pairs of words regardless of their language of origin. For example, in null and void, both words are French; in have and hold, both words are English.

What bearing, if any, does this have on contract drafting?

Well, we no longer have to worry about a readership versed in Latin and Old French. On the other hand, English is now in flux in a different way, that it has become the lingua franca for business the world over. Drafters are called on to articulate, in English, concepts originally articulated in different languages for purposes of different legal systems. But that’s an issue for translators; it’s not likely to be resolved through use of redundant synonyms.

Of course, one issue Crystal refers to remains relevant: sometimes it’s advisable to use two words because the two words don’t constitute synonyms but instead have overlapping meanings. That’s the only legitimate use for doublets or triplets.

But what I take from Crystal, and from Mellinkoff before him, is that doublets and triplets serve primarily a rhetorical function. That’s why they remain a prominent feature of contract prose, and that’s why lawyers continually invent new redundant synonyms.

In that regard, I enjoyed what Crystal has to say about have and hold:

But have and hold requires a further comment: it reminds us that lexical coupling is an ancient English stylistic tradition. Heold mec on hæfde Hreðel cyning, reminisces Beowulf (l. 2,430)—”King Hrethel had and held me” (i.e., looked after me). The rhythmical appeal of lexical doubling has well-established historical roots.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

2 thoughts on “The Historical Roots of Redundant Synonyms”

  1. this is very helpful! i am in a philosophy of law class now, focusing on honor traditions in various cultures, and this article just helped sparks some ideas about the connection between the evolution of English language, legal practice, and concepts of honor. thank you.


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