Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Would you say that you have a wireless mobile cellular phone? Would you say that a car audio sound system? No, of course not, because both of those terms would be redundant. Why is it, then, that many people still have the habit of asking for a cup of chai tea?

In Hindi (and possibly other languages in the area), the word for tea is simply “chai.” So, when you are saying that you would like a cup of chai tea, you’re really saying that you want a cup of tea tea. That just doesn’t make sense, because it’s redundant. You’re running into the same situation as terms like “PIN number” or “$5000 bucks.” The second part just isn’t necessary.

To be fair, what we normally call “chai” in the western world is specifically “masala chai” in India, which has milky and spicy characteristics. Even so, and even if you are referring to a different type of chai, it is unnecessary to append to the term with “tea.” Chai already means tea.

The English language borrows a lot of terms from other languages and that’s likely why there is increased confusion when it comes to these terms. We wouldn’t say “tea tea,” but we may catch ourselves saying “chai tea.”

I’ve noticed on more than a few sushi menus that they’ll have a section for “maki rolls,” but the Japanese term “maki” is already describing a rolled form of sushi. It’s not necessary to say “rolls.” This would be akin to ordering some “hors d’oeuvre appetizers,” since “hors d’oeuvre” already refers to small appetizers that you have before the main course of a meal.

Following along those lines, it would be technically redundant to use terms like pho noodles or ramen noodles too, since pho and ramen are already types of noodles on their own. At the same time, it seems more acceptable to say spaghetti noodles or fettuccine noodles. I’m not sure if it’s more correct though, since it’s just as redundant.

What are your thoughts on redundant food terms like these? Do they add clarity or are they just superfluous?