Elegant Variation, Fashion and Employee Free Time: What Do They Have in Common?

I am learning Chinese by studying a Chinese version of The Three Little Pigs. The story contains a phrase that irritated me: “Three’s home” (in Chinese). Although I did know the Chinese for “home”, the rest of the story used the term “Three’s brick house” (in Chinese). Why couldn’t they stick with one name for it? I thought.

I knew the answer: In language, we like to use different words for the same thing. A famous archeological decipherment puzzle was solved when someone realized the stone cutter had used different words for the same thing. A little repetition is okay but extreme repetition is not. Thus the term elegant variation. Using different words for the same thing is not just confusing, it makes the language harder to learn (because it is larger), with no obvious improvement in breadth or speed of communication.

Why do we do this? Why do we dislike certain sorts of repetition, even though language is built on repetition? I think the answer is that this is built into us to help the language to expand and grow. The variation seems useless but it isn’t because (a) there is a new word and (b) the new word can shift in meaning. The old word can continue to mean what it meant.

Fashion has a similar function. Our shifting preferences in art and decoration force artists to keep inventing. They cannot merely do the same thing over and over and over. Fashion obviously increases innovation.

In her brilliant book The Good Jobs Strategy, Zeynep Ton, an MIT business professor, says that retailers should “operate with slack” — meaning hire more employees than necessary. The effect is to give employees some free time. Why should this be? Because when you give employees free time you give them to think. Giving them time to think gives them time to think of improvements.

Language (elegant variation) and material science (fashion) might be more central to human life than well-run stores (slack) but in each case there are real problems to solve — and they are solved, in part, by adding seemingly-useless elements to the system. The new elements help the system improve.

6 Replies to “Elegant Variation, Fashion and Employee Free Time: What Do They Have in Common?”

  1. When I was in college, the professor who helped to improve my writing the most would make us read our papers out loud to him. I was reading a paper about Plato to him, and he stopped me because he could not follow my train of thought. It turned out that my unconscious training to avoid using the same phrase repeatedly had made the paper incomprehensible. I remember telling him I had wanted to avoid using the same terms, and he said, “It helps.”

  2. Its interesting you should be writing this in China. Some cultures don’t seem to prize elegant variation but prefer to fix their fashion in architecture and literature to a single mold, which they repeat for centuries.

  3. Since language variation demonstrates mental agility and creativity, we might be unconsciously motivated to do it to show off, to help attract the opposite sex.

    Why do we have so many songs, or even one song? Maybe for the same reason we have oral sex: it’s appreciated.

    Seth: When I hear that this or that feature of human behavior evolved for the sake of showing off to the opposite sex — and I hear it often — I think, sarcastically, thank goodness things are so simple. There is certainly a lot of sexual signalling and as far as I know it is always very asymmetric: one sex does it much more than the other (e.g., dance). I am unaware of any sexual asymmetry in language variation. Both men and women do it, roughly the same amount.

  4. I read The Odyssey for my A Levels in school and I remember the formulaic descriptions of things like the sunrise. I found this increasingly frustrating and it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

    Why was it so annoying? I guess it felt lazy and it was just really boring to re read the same phrases and descriptions over and over. I couldn’t mentally ‘buy in’ to the description of a beautiful sunrise after I’d read the same description 10 times.

    Outside of my day job I run a small record label. Writing is not one of my strong points and creating press releases is a hard task. I have to come up with many different way of referring to the same thing – “the album, released today”, “the band’s full length debut was recorded at…”, “the band had this to say about their self-titled release…” etc.

    I figure the people I’m sending these to must read many of them every day so I need to keep it as interesting as possible.

    As always, context is important. I would assume in a research paper its acceptable to use the same, and probably very particular, terms for things.

    Is this the case?

  5. The Odyssey and Iliad come out of oral traditions of storytelling. When you’ve got 11,000 lines to recite, repetition gives your hearers a chance to assimiliate and gives you a break at the same time.

    This highly non-repetitive Onion piece cracked me up, because the writers used as many different synonyms as they could think of for “a##hole”.

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