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I've often come across phrases such as "hot embers" and "cold ice" (I'd be hard pressed to cite sources...I don't remember any). I found the adjectives "hot" and "cold" used with "embers" and "ice" respectively redundant, because...well... that (burning) embers are "hot" and that ice is "cold" is painfully obvious.

But since I see such usage fairly often (once again, I can't cite any sources), coupled with the existence of an establish term "paleo-achaeology", my initial belief that these were products of the airheaded-ness that usually grips users of the English language (joke) was reduced to mere suspicion.

Which is why I ask:

Is this a figure of speech? If so what is it called? Moreover, what purpose does it serve? (sarcasm? emphasis?)

  • Please tell us what you think the term figure of speech connotes. – P. E. Dant Jun 20 '17 at 7:56
  • @P.E Um, something along the lines of "more than just literal"? Ah heck, I think this might be a "figure of speech" because an oxymoron is also considered a "figure of speech"...and what I'm asking for is...well...probably in the same category as oxymorons. 0:) – paracetamol Jun 20 '17 at 8:05
  • Hot embers is an oxymoron? Do you understand what an oxymoron is? How are the noun ember and the adjective hot contradictory? – P. E. Dant Jun 20 '17 at 8:10
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    @Steve Yeah I'm sure. "...as he clutched at the cold ice..." :P – paracetamol Jun 20 '17 at 12:49
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    @paracetamol An example :o! – SteveES Jun 20 '17 at 12:52
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No, I don't think they're figures of speech since figures of speech are not meant to be taken literally. I believe these are pleonasms (bold emphasis mine):

Pleonasm (/ˈpliːənæzəm/; from Greek πλεονασμός (pleonasmós), from πλέον (pleon), meaning 'more, too much') is the use of more words or parts of words than are necessary or sufficient for clear expression: examples are black darkness, burning fire. Such redundancy is, by traditional rhetorical criteria, a manifestation of tautology. That being said, people may use a pleonasm for emphasis or because the phrase has already become established in a certain form.
(Wikipedia)

Here are a couple of examples:

2. Semantic Pleonasm

The semantic pleonasm is related more to the style of the language than the grammar such as given below.

“I am eating tuna fish burger.”

Here tuna is itself a name of fish, and there is no need to add word “fish”.
Therefore, the word fish is pleonastic in the sentence.

Examples of Pleonasm from Literature
Example #1

“This was the most unkindest cut of all…..”

(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

In this extract, Shakespeare has deliberately used the term “most unkindest” as pleonastic. He could have used unkindest only; however, most is added in order to emphasize and give an even clearer meaning.
(Literary Devices)

  • "Black darkness", "Burning fire"... precisely what I was looking for! Thanks! – paracetamol Jun 20 '17 at 8:39
  • +1 @Max Pleonasms are exactly what they are, although I'm not sure that they are intended as such by the "airheads" who have elicited the OP's interest. – P. E. Dant Jun 20 '17 at 8:40
  • @Max Oh well, your answer is pretty much what I was looking for...but I suppose I'll give it a day before (re)accepting it. Thanks again O modest soul! :D – paracetamol Jun 20 '17 at 9:01
  • @paracetamol I would be a bit careful before calling these straight out pleonasms. A fire doesn't need to necessarily "burn" it can "smolder" it can even be "extinguished", "The extinguished fire showed someone must have been in the cabin a short while ago," is a perfectly valid sentence (though clumsy). And you can have "dying embers" which are quite different from "hot embers". – DRF Jun 20 '17 at 10:36
  • @paracetamol I think the usual point of these "obvious" adjectives is to do exactly what adjectives normally do paint a more vivid picture for the reader. There is a difference in the image if I write "The fire in the hearth burned brightly bathing the room in a warm orange glow," as opposed to, "There was a fire in the hearth." – DRF Jun 20 '17 at 10:40

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