The idea that it’s bad to say the same thing twice has been around for a long time. Something in the nature of the human ear makes repetition sound strange, or off—in writing, it can look like a mistake. The poets of antiquity, who were constantly reciting their heroes’ names, made sure to have elaborate alternatives: “the son of Peleus” for Achilles or the “man of pain” for Odysseus. In English, this impulse was termed “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 been cashing this check for centuries. Since 2013, the preëminent collector of variation has been a Twitter account, run by a British couple, called Second Mentions.
I first encountered Second Mentions in 2017, when I was working as a reporter in Sydney, Australia. News writing, by necessity, brings you up against repetition as an occupational hazard, and the account was shown to me by an editor, who shared it with a self-aware, nerdy, professional glee. The account tracks the ways that writers strive to express the same thing differently, with examples taken mostly from newspapers and magazines around the world. (A “second mention”—also known as a second reference—is the account’s name for these ways of avoiding repetition.) Take, for example, Adele, who is frequently “the singer Adele” on first mention, and then maybe “the Tottenham soul-pop titan” on second mention. Cheese, if you are saying “cheese” too much, can be “the popular dairy product.” A “pair of armadillos,” who, for some reason, were put on a diet? “The oval-shaped duo.” The account is addictively funny, and its discoveries are—variously—charming, insane, perfect.
Some greatest hits: the Times of London describing “tea” as “the bitter brown infusion.” the Guardian describing a fox who ran onto a soccer field as “the four-legged interloper.” New York Times describing Grumpy Cat, the Internet meme, as “the sourpuss with the piercing look of contempt.” (In the cat’s obituary, no less.) Even this magazine, last year, describing electric scooters as “the long-necked, flat-bottomed machines.”
Unlike some other journalism-adjacent language-based accounts—for example, new york times, which tweets when a word appears in the Gray Lady for the first time—Second Mentions is not a bot. It is crowdsourced from its readers, or from proud writers themselves. The two admins and founders of the account told me that they must remain anonymous, because one currently works at a national media company in London, and is thus very much tweeting from inside the house. A few examples from the past weeks drew from the Boston Globe (St. Patrick’s Day . . . “the annual tradition”), Radio France Internationale (Microplastics . . . “the ubiquitous particles”), the social-media-centric, video-based online platform NowThis News (a swan that blocked a police car was “the feathered obstacle”), and the British news channel Sky News (Will Smith . . . “the former Fresh Prince”).
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And although the account deals, on the surface, with journalistic excess, it’s really a deeper celebration of language. The second mentions often border on poetry. The moon, described by the Mirroras “the tide changing rock.” the Sun describing a sex doll as a “lust vessel.” The account has become what linguists would call a corpus, a living repository of language. The anonymous admin told me that, in her near-decade running it, she has developed a fledgling system of taxonomy for second mentions. Her eyes from her went into a kind of deep, glassy focus, on Zoom, as she scrolled down a long list. “You’ve got animal ones, and sport ones, food ones,” she read out. “’Porcine,’ ‘bovine,’ ‘ovine,’ all those kind of descriptors.” She runs the account with her husband de ella, and added that he “really likes when animals are called, like, ‘porker.’ ” He was delighted by a recent “porcine” twofer that happened when the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, suddenly lost track of his notes during a speech and started talking about Peppa Pig. “Hands up anybody who’s been to Peppa Pig World?” he asked, before then describing her as “a pig that looks like a Picasso-like hair dryer.” “PM accused of losing the plot,” the Meter wrote. “He compares himself to Moses, makes car noises and praises the cartoon pig.”
What makes these substitutions so sublime? Kristen Syrett, a professor of linguistics at Rutgers University, told me that people are instinctively drawn to second mentions because of a well-documented concept called the repeated-name penalty. This is a cognitive phenomenon, part of the way human minds process language. “If I say to you, ‘Jane walked into the living room, Jane picked up a book, Jane started to read the book’ . . . that causes a delay in reading time,” Syrett said. Psycholinguists have conducted experiments with eye-tracking technology, where they have watched the eyes of their subjects stumbling over these names and scanning back. The body stutters. This response, Syrett said, is “encoded in our brain”—it applies as much to Japanese as it does to Spanish. (The much-vaunted opening lines of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” are, really, just an exercise in avoiding the repeated-name penalty: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. . . . She was Lo, plain Lo , in the morning. . . . She was Lola in slacks.”)
The Greeks had their own verb for this—antonomazein, “to name differently”—which lends 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 “infernal Serpent,” the “Apostate Angel,” the “superiour Fiend,” and so on). In Germany, a post from the linguistics section of the online forum Stack Exchange tells us, “German journalism is notorious for synonyms. And as a non-native German speaker I sometimes get confused when, for example, a Wildschwein (boar) is suddenly referred to later in the article as a Paarhufer (even-toed ungulate).” Fowler and his brother by him, writing about English in 1906, opined that too many “writers of the present day” were addicted to the second mention.
The Fowlers, whose early attempts to codify English are still followed by many sticklers, coined “elegant variation” sarcastically and described it as “false elegance” and “cheap ornament”—even tearing apart a line from Charlotte Brontë (“His mother possessed a good development of benevolence, but he owned a better and larger”) as an example of what not to do. On Wikipedia, in a contributor-discussion section of what has become the biggest collaborative-writing process in world history, you’ll find an instructive essay titled “The problem with elegant variation.” “Elegant variation distracts the reader, removes clarity, and can introduce inadvertent humor or muddled metaphors,” it says. Or, as the Fowler brothers put it, in 1906, “These elephantine shifts distract our attention from the matter in hand.”
In the nineteen-fifties, the editor Charles W. Morton collected egregious second mentions from publications and circulated them in the Atlantic Bulletin with some popularity. He finished this the “elongated yellow fruit” school of writing—so scarred was he by a second mention he saw of bananas. (Another ripe example: the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star referred to milk as “the vitamin-laden liquid.”) In this way, Second Mentions is the modern successor to a long literary history. Whether in celebration or in reproach, second references are something that people love to collect. And they are clearly a source of joy. Take the following sentence from Leicestershire Live: “Chutney Ivy in the city’s Cultural Quarter will also host a samosa fundraiser where guests can enjoy the triangular snacks.” How does that not activate a kind of delight at the back of the cortex? It’s the shape of the sentence, the simple geometry, the bathos, the fact that, not even halfway through the sentence, however funny or extravagant the synonym will be, you realize that you actually do need it.