Today was an interesting day, sesquiotically, for a couple of reasons. For one, I went to see Umberto Eco in conversation with Michael Enright at the Metro Reference Library. Eco didn’t look as he usually does (quite something how my various longstanding idols manage to have changed their appearances when I actually get to see them): he had only a moustache, not the beard that gives him such an air in his photos. But he was still Umberto Eco, and witty. When Enright asked why he had such a fascination with stupidity, he replied, “With normal intelligence, you have two plus two equals four. That’s it, finished. Stupidity is infinite!”

Eco, author of The Open Work (Opera Aperta), certainly doesn’t think that literary texts are quite 2+2=4; there is a good deal of room for the reader’s participation. But not an infinite amount! He declared that he could not be held accountable for the perversity of readers if they, for instance, wanted to take his latest book, The Prague Cemetery, as an incitement to anti-Semitism simply because it follows – in a very unflattering light – an anti-Semite. In my turn at the question mike, I asked him about his view on whether there was a definable line one could draw between acceptable and unacceptable perversity of the reader. He didn’t give a nuanced answer – given the context and that he was not speaking Italian, this is understandable – but he was certainly of the position that some things are insupportable by the text: “There is participation and then there is stupidity.”

Now, language is all participation. Linguistics does what it can to be scientific, but language is a very involved group creation that is never entirely fixed – it keeps changing, and even at any one time a word or expression can have so many different nuances of sense. One needs only to look at the very common “production errors” people make to get a sense of how speaking can be like a game show where you have to take live fish from a bucket and stuff them into labelled slots on a moving wall against the clock. But there are cases where the existing structures and lexicon, communally created though they may be, just don’t support a usage.

This is loosely related to the second reason today was an interesting day, sesquiotically. It has to do not with a disastrous syntactic excursion but rather with a lexical innovation. Certainly many people get worked up quite readily at some lexical innovations or perceived innovations; generally I will strive to be the moderate voice and take a descriptive approach in these matters. But sometimes I do find myselve stopping, stepping back, and gaping momentarily.

Imagine, for instance, that you had a word for X, and you needed a word for X+1, so you modified the word for X to suit. Well and good. But how about if you now decided that you needed a word for (X+1)–1? Would it make sense just to use the word for X? You would think so. But it seems that, just as for some people 2+2–2≠2, for some people (X+1)–1 calls for something other than X.

So anyway, here’s the second reason, a headline from a story on page E1 of the November 16 Toronto Star: “A two-peat for literary star Patrick de Witt”.

I can’t lay the creation of two-peat at the feet of the entertainment columnist or other headline writer for the Star. It’s been around for a bit. has an entry for it from 2009: “To repeat for the second time in a row; usually used in sports.”

A triad of things here. First, winning the Governor General’s Award is literature, not sports, and various people will feel variously about the application of a sporting approach to literary reporting. Second, it may seem ironic that an article on literature would use two-peat rather than repeat or another well-accepted usage. Third, isn’t repeating for the second time in a row a three-peat?

Three-peat is, of course, the X+1 here. In sports, where there is an obsession with dynasties and winning and losing streaks and so on, winning something significant three times in a row merits a good word. If the second championship for a team was a repeat, well, the third is a three-peat. Sure, why the heck not. The word has been around for about a quarter of a century already. And four-peat is a natural extension too, not quite as cute because four doesn’t rhyme with re as three does, but still.

So anyway, you win. Then you repeat. Then, the second repetition, you have a three-peat. But a two-peat? Who would take a two-peat to be the same as a three-peat? Not the Toronto Star; the GG Award is de Witt’s second big win this season. And, really, a two-peat must be one less than a three-peat, no? Like an echo: you shout, it repeats. That’s two. Eccolà.

But then, what the heck would a one-peat be?

I’ll tell you what it would be: a sarcastic term referring to an unfulfilled ambition to repeat. That’s what I see in the few uses of it I’ve found on the web. Could it be used without sarcasm? Um. Heh. Is 2+2–2 equal to 2 or not? See Eco above.

Nor do I have a great taste for two-peat. It has its potential, to be sure, as a derisive indicator of an incomplete three-peat, and as a Shakespearean pun: “Two-peat or not two-peat?” But otherwise, really, for peat’s sake. I mean Pete’s. I beg you. I petition you. I petition you twice (bis repetita placent) – I make a two-petition. Would that be a two-peat?

Hm. Maybe I should just follow Google’s lead on this. Search two-peat and you get sports, but search one-peat and you get Scotch. The nice peaty kind. Of which I have a few bottles around. If I can’t scotch two-peat, I can still have two peaty Scotches.

13 responses to “two-peat

  1. But then, what the heck would a one-peat be?

    One time I was riding my bike through a quiet residential neighborhood and there was a little kid, about 5 or 6, shooting baskets on a miniature kids’ hoop. He hit a shot and shouted gleefully, “One in a row!”

  2. “One in a row”

    Well, in Daniel’s example, one-peat won’t do for ‘one-in-a-row’ because it was not used for unfulfilled ambition. It was with expectation that he would soon hit many more 😀

    James, have you watched “The Name of The Rose”?

    I asked a question to you (It was on Facebook!):

    “is there a word for something which is just more than a decade but not decades old, and you use decade as a base word; without switching to 12-13-14 as a base “

  3. I read and saw Name of the Rose. I can see why creating the library for the movie was so difficult (director’s comment). I fear a time when humor is lethal. For instance the airports now that shout out over the intercom, ‘We do NOT have a sense of humor and will take any ‘joking’ remark seriously.” Oh, RLLY?!

    The Dark Ages are not so far away.

  4. One thing I didn’t go into is the interesting thing that this tells us about how people conceptualize repetition. I say it, then I repeat it, but if I say that I repeat it twice some people will assume I said it twice and others that I said it three times; if I say I repeat it three times, most people will take it that I said it three times. There seems to be a point where we switch from a point-focused view to an process- or iterative-focused one. If you do something only once, it’s not one repetition (unless you’re doing exercise, where that’s the terminology), but if you do it three times that’s three repetitions as a set rather than one initial instance and two repetitions. It’s just easier to fold the one into the many.

    • There is also the problem of the word ‘reiterate’. Since ‘iterate’ means ‘do again’, does ‘reiterate’ mean doing something for the third time or more, or is the word simply a slack tautology? Both words, it seems from several dictionaries, can have the sense of doing something again and again.

  5. I agree but with another example. How does one designate twins. Is a pair of twins two people or 4 people? I would simply say twins if I meant two people, but I’ve heard many people refer to two babies born at the same time from the same mother as a pair of twins. In my mind two sets of twins is a pair, but we also refer to two pieces of sharp metal hinged together as a pair of scissors or two tubes of connected fabric as a pair of pants. I understand pair of shoes, if you have two feet you need two shoes, but I get a bit twisted when talking about pairs of people.

    • Since one person who has a twin is a twin, it follows that two twins is a pair of twins is two people. We seem generally to use twin in the singular to refer to one member of a pair. We also use it as an adjective, as in twin towers, but twin towers aren’t a twin; they’re a pair of twins…

    • The doubleness of pants seems to be ingrained. In Latin of the early imperial period, the word for ‘underpants’ is subligar, a singular noun that might be translated ‘loincloth’. The garment was T-shaped, the crossbar of the T being wrapped around the waist from behind, and the lower part passed forward between the legs so that the whole garment could be secured at the front with a single pin. There is nothing intrinsically double about this garment apart from the wearer’s legs.

      Nevertheless, by the time that the famous Vindolanda tablet 346
      had been written — about AD 100 — the word had become plural, _subligaria_.

      The thin wooden tablet is a letter from a Roman mother to her soldier son serving in the chilly conditions at Hadrian’s Wall. The damaged inscription shows that she has sent:
      … tibi paria udon[um] … ab Sattua solearum … duo … et subligariorum … duo solearum paria du[o] …
      ‘…to you … pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals, two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals …’.

  6. i’ve done pants, also, as in wearing them (really laughing out loud, snickering actually with a smile) and sewing them, actual trousers, troos, pantaloons. I have been tempted, as a costume maker of sorts (for faires and cons) to create a real pair of hosen, the sewn, shaped sort of footed pajama leg that ends on either side at the inseam and is tied together at the back and waist. Just can’t talk any of the guys into wearing them. Sissies. Once seeing the construction for such a pair of garments I can see the need eventually for the outrageous covering garment of later years. Now that is an interesting word, codpis. I haven’t searched, but I bet you’ve done that, too.

    @Tachybaptus – what a lovely letter from a mother. Have you seen the Roman object (I would call it a charm) that was found near Hadrian’s Wall? It is the shape of a foot in a Roman sandal, but under the sandal is a thick woolen sock. Priceless.

  7. PS. I couldn’t help but think that the letter could have been written yesterday. After spending 3 yrs in the military many ages ago I can tell you that mail and boxes from home are as close to heaven as a soldier gets when serving overseas.

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