A WORD IN THE HAND: MIME
Warning: you can't revert back and argue with a mime
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
A recent announcement for a buskers’ festival proudly proclaimed that the event will feature “silent mimes”. I’m not sure exactly when it is but sadly I will be stuck at home cleaning the fishbowl that day so will not be able to attend. Nevertheless, I was relieved to hear that the mimes will keep their mouths shut. If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s a chatty mime.
If you consider how many people suffer from metamfiezomaiophobia – an irrational fear of mimes – imagine what chaos would ensue if one of the creepy creatures stepped down off its pedestal and said: “Anyone got a tissue?” There might be a stampede. (Incidentally, I used the word “pedestal” there because a soapbox would be wasted on a mime.)
As any pedant will tell you, referring to a mime as silent is a prime example of redundancy, which is when you use two words to do the work of one, thereby rendering the extra word redundant. “First time ever”, “honest truth”, “total abstinence” and “personal friend” are all redundant expressions. (I’d argue that “brutal murder” and “tragic death” are equally redundant but I don’t see us getting rid of them any time soon.)
Another famous redundancy is “advance warning” because what is a warning if it doesn’t come in advance of whatever the thing is you are warning someone about?
If I were being extra-specially pedantic, I suppose an argument might be made that an advance warning is a perfectly legitimate term for a tip-off about a warning that is yet to come. It would be along the lines of: “Don’t be frightened, I just want to let you know that I’m going to warn you about something.”
If I said: “In about five minutes I’m going to warn you to step to the right otherwise you might be crushed by a falling mime,” that would be a warning that comes in advance of a warning. But generally speaking, putting advance before warning is as redundant as putting back after revert.
“I’ll revert back” is a popular phrase used by many to indicate that they have no intention of dealing with whatever it is you might want them to deal with. It is, however, redundant. To revert to someone means to get back to them. Unlike advance warnings, there is no sound argument for revert back having any merit, because there really is no way to revert except back.
Let’s revert to mimes. The word comes from the Greek mimos, meaning an imitator, or mimeisthai, to imitate, and was first used in English in the 1600s. Samuel Johnson’s English dictionary, published in 1755, defined a mime as “a buffoon who practises gesticulations”.
Perhaps Johnson also suffered from metamfiezomaiophobia. Either way, the defining characteristic of the gesticulating buffoon is that it does not speak, which makes the phrase “silent mimes” entirely redundant. It also makes it very difficult to argue with a mime.
This, I think, is what causes people to dislike mimes. It’s not their white-painted faces or silly gloves or the fact that they stand around all day and get paid for it. The most terrifying thing about mimes is that they don’t talk back.