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.