In a Word: Waves of Redundancy

Wade into the watery root of ‘redundant’ and its etymological siblings.

A flooded pantheon in Rome

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

As a copy editor, I’m always on the lookout for redundancies. Normally, I avoid them wherever I can, but today I’m going to dive right into redundancy — the word, at least.

Like many English words, redundancy — the repetition of information or resources, often that don’t need to be repeated — traces back to Latin, where the noun unda means “wave.” From unda we get the verb undare “to rise in waves, to flow.” To undare we add the prefix re-, meaning “again”; does that give us reundare? Nope. In early Latin, when re- was appended to a word that started with a vowel or h, a d was inserted to make it easier to pronounce. (We see this in words like redolent and redemption.)

You might even think of it as a redundant d.

So re- + undare created redundare “to overflow or be over-full.” That was its literal meaning, but it took on the figurative sense “to be in excess.” The present participle of this verb, redundantem, became the English redundant “superfluous, exceeding what is necessary” by the early 1600s.

The “family tree” of English words that stem from Latin unda is quite varied. Here are just a few words that you probably didn’t know were etymologically related to redundant:

  • Undulate: Once you recognize that unda means “wave,” this makes perfect sense. In Latin, a small wave or wavelet is an undula, which led to the Medieval Latin undulatio, which became the English undulation. The verb undulate “to move in waves” is a back-formation from the noun.
  • Inundate: The unda in here is also rather evident. The prefix in- “onto” was added to create a word meaning “to overflow” — a literal meaning very similar to that of redundant, which is perhaps why the figurative meaning of redundant became so well solidified. Inundare became inundate following more or less the same route as undulate.
  • Surround: The waves in surround are less obvious. To Latin undare was added the prefix super- “over,” creating superundare, yet another word that means “to overflow.” (Did the ancient Romans have problems with flooding or what?) Superundare took a detour through Old French, where the super- was shortened to sur-, becoming, after a time, the Anglo-French surounder, which was completely anglicized as surrounden by the early 1400s. Surprisingly, when surrounden entered English, it still meant “flood, overflow.” Two hundred years would pass before we start to find the (now shortened) surround regularly used in the way we use it today, to mean “to enclose on all sides.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. I hear you on the redundancies, and do my best to avoid/prevent them whenever possible as well. The origins of these words are interesting in their etymological connections, and actually not too redundant after all.


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