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Intermission: Down down down down town

It’s Road Trip time once again and your sun-loving Word Guy has gone north to Chicago. Although I try to ensure all my trips are to areas warmer than Cleveland, inevitably I have to “take one for the team” and go from cold to colder. So in lieu of my regular ramble around a specific word, I’m breaking into an older article that looks at how many times you can put the same word consecutively in a sentence.

So how often have you found yourself in a situation where you’re writing a letter or article and as you review it, you see you’ve written the same word twice? If you use a word processor, a good one will pick this up and highlight it for you. But how often is it actually correct to use multiple instances of a word?

Over one particular weekend, my daughter and I were deciding on when to go to the movies. She said she wanted to go to the late show, to which I responded, “Do you want to go to the early late show or the late late show?” For a few moments, we looked at each other wondering if there was anything wrong with either the notion of an “early late” show or even the double-barreled “late late” show. “It’s OK,” I said, “to have ‘early late’ and ‘late late’ so long as we understand that ‘late show’ is actually a single noun meaning ‘a showing that is held in the evening at some indeterminate time, but such that it would not be considered early.’”

Before you stop reading, I should explain that yes, we do talk like that, especially when we’re having breakfast and just “chillin’” or “shooting the breeze” – though how you can shoot a gentle waft of air is probably best left for a future column. The more ridiculous the topic, the more we talk.

“Of course,” I continued, “If the late show in question were no longer in existence, we could have the sentence ‘We used to go to the late late late show,’ because this new use of ‘late’ refers to something now passed on.” This triple play of “lates” got us to thinking about how many such words you could get into a sentence legitimately. Examples such as “Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes!” as said by an excited child who’s just been asked if he wants a trip to Disney or a free bucket of ice cream would be excluded. The sentence has to be coherent and valid.

So we moved on to the notion of a city having a “down town” area. If that area had a region that was depressed and unappealing, you could use the word “down” (as in “I’m feeling a little down today”) as a descriptor. You can thus have a “down down town.” Then, if that city were built on a slope – Seattle, for example – you could conceivably have a physically higher area described as the “up down down town” and a correspondingly lower region called the “down down down town.” Finally, you could use the word “down” again to describe the action of going somewhere, forming the sentence “Let’s go down down down down town.”

At that point, we were finding it hard to keep up with ourselves, and as I was writing this article, my word processor was having a real hard time with so many multiples of the same word, drawing many red lines under them screaming “Stop it, that’s not allowed!”

This is not the longest word run of which I am aware. Stephen Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct, gives the following example: “The Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” Frankly, if you can work this one out, you’re way too smart to be reading this column! But if you can’t, let me know and I’ll send you the reference.


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