The idea that saying the same thing twice is bad has been around for a long time. Something in the nature of the human ear makes the repetition sound odd or off – when writing it may sound like an error. The poets of antiquity, who constantly recited the names of their heroes, made sure to have elaborate alternatives: “the son of Peleus” for Achilles or “the man of sorrows” for Odysseus. In English, this impulse was called “elegant variation”, in 1906, by the legendary style guru and pedant HW Fowler and his brother FG Fowler. Variation, and how to achieve it, has obsessed people across languages and cultures – the thesaurus has cashed that check for centuries. Since 2013, the collector par excellence of the variation is a Twitter account, run by a British couple, called Second mention.
I first encountered Second Mentions in 2017 while working as a journalist in Sydney, Australia. Writing short stories, by necessity, pits you against repetition as a professional hazard, and the story was shown to me by an editor, who shared it with self-conscious, cheesy, professional glee. The story traces the ways writers strive to express the same thing differently, with examples drawn mostly from newspapers and magazines around the world. (A “second mention” – also known as a second reference – is the name of the story for these ways to avoid repetition.) Take, for example, Adele, who is often “singer Adele” when first mention, then maybe “Tottenham’s soul-pop titanon the second mention. Cheese, if you say “cheese” too much, can be “the popular dairy product.” A “pair of armadillos” who, for some reason, have been put on a diet? “The Oval Duo.” The narrative is hilariously addictive and its discoveries are – variously – charming, crazy, picture-perfect.
Some greatest hits: Time of London describing “tea” as “bitter brown infusion.” the Guardian describing a fox that ran across a football field as “the four-legged intruder.” The New York Time describing Grumpy Cat, the internet meme, as “the curmudgeon with the piercing gaze of contempt.” (In the chat obituary, no less.) Even this magazine, last year, describing electric scooters as “long neck and flat bottom machines.”
Unlike some other linguistic narratives close to journalism, for example, New New York Times, which tweets when a word first appears in the Gray Lady—Second Mentions is not a bot. It is crowdsourced from its readers, or from proud writers themselves. The two administrators and founders of the account told me they had to remain anonymous, as one currently works at a national media company in London, and therefore tweets a lot from inside the house. Some examples from the last few weeks taken from the Boston World (The Saint Patrick . . . “the annual tradition“), Radio France Internationale (Microplastics . . . “the ubiquitous particles”), the online social media and video platform NowThis News (a swan that blocked a police car was “the feathered obstacle”), and the British news channel Sky News (Will Smith . . . “the old fresh prince”).
[Support The New Yorker’s award-winning journalism. Subscribe today »]
And while the narrative deals, on the surface, with journalistic excess, it’s really a deeper celebration of language. Second mentions often border on poetry. The moon, described by the shimmeras “the rock that changes the tide.” the Sun describing a sex doll as a “vessel of luxury.” The narrative has become what linguists would call a corpus, a living repository of language. The anonymous admin told me that in her nearly decade of management, she’s developed a whole new taxonomy system for second mentions. Her eyes went into a kind of deep, glassy focus, on Zoom, as she scrolled through a long list. “You have animal ones, sports ones, food ones,” she read. “‘Pig’, ‘bovine’, ‘ovine’, all those kinds of descriptors.” She runs the account with her husband and added that he ‘really likes when animals are called, like, ‘porker’. He was delighted with a recent ‘pig’ duel which happened when the Prime Minister Briton, Boris Johnson, suddenly lost track of his notes during a speech and started talking about Peppa Pig. ‘Hands up, everyone who’s been to Peppa Pig World?’ before describing it as “a pig that looks like a hair dryer à la Picasso”. “The Prime Minister accused of having lost the plot”, has Metro wrote. “He compares himself to Moses, makes car noises and praises the cartoon pig.”
What makes these substitutions so sublime? Kristen Syrett, a linguistics professor at Rutgers University, told me that people are instinctively drawn to second mentions because of a well-documented concept called the repeated name penalty. It is a cognitive phenomenon, part of how the human mind processes language. “If I say to you, ‘Jane walked into the living room, Jane picked up a book, Jane started reading the book’ . . . that causes a delay in reading time,” Syrett said. Psycholinguists conducted experiments with eye-tracking technology, where they observed their subjects’ eyes stumble over these names and jump back. The body stutters. This response, Syrett said, is “encoded in our brain” – it applies as much in Japanese as in Spanish. (The vaunted opening lines of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” are, in reality, only an exercise in avoiding the sanction of repeated names: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. . . . She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning… It was Lola in trousers.”)
The Greeks had their own verb for this –antonomazein, “to name otherwise” – which gives its name to the rhetorical technique antonomasia. Shakespeare was a master; John Milton calls Satan at least seven different things in the first book of “Paradise Lost” (the “hellish serpent”, “the apostate angel”, the “superior demon”, etc.). In Germany, a message from the language section of the Stack Exchange online forum tells us: “German journalism is known for its synonyms. And as a non-native German speaker, I am sometimes confused when, for example, a Wildschwein (boar) is suddenly mentioned later in the article as a Paarhufer (even-toed ungulate). Fowler and his brother, writing about English in 1906, were of the opinion that too many “today’s writers” were addicted to the second mention.
The Fowlers, whose early attempts at codifying English are still followed by many fussy, coined the “elegant variation” sarcastically and described it as “false elegance” and “cheap ornament” – even ripping a line from Charlotte Brontë (“Her mother possesses a good development of benevolence, but it possesses better and bigger”) as an example of what not to do. On Wikipedia, in a discussion section of the contributors to what has become the largest collaborative writing process in the history of the world, you will find an instructive essay titled “The Problem of Elegant Variation”. “An elegant variation distracts the reader, removes clarity, and can introduce inadvertent humor or confusing metaphors,” he says. Or, as the Fowler brothers put it, in 1906, “These elephantine changes divert our attention from the matter at hand.”
In the 1950s, publisher Charles W. Morton collected blatant second mentions of publications and circulated them in the Atlantic Newsletter with some popularity. He called it the “elongated yellow fruit” school of writing – so marked by a second mention he saw of bananas. (Another mature example: the Lincoln Sunday newspaper and star called milk “the liquid loaded with vitamins”.) In this way, Second Mentions is the modern successor to a long literary history. Whether in celebration or rebuke, second references are something people love to collect. And they are clearly a source of joy. Take the next sentence from Leicestershire Live: “Chutney Ivy in the city’s cultural quarter will also host a samosa fundraiser where guests can enjoy triangular snacks.” How does that not activate some kind of delight in the back of the cortex? It’s the form of the sentence, the simple geometry, the bathos, the fact that not even halfway through the sentence, however funny or outlandish the synonym, you realize you actually need it.