Ass and Name
Zola and Zoilus
A few Neos
What's in a Nem?
Pleo III-Two More Pleons
Achron.. and Acroam..
Per IV--Perpotation et al.
Per and Pre--Prevenient
Perpense and Perpend
Epi I--Epiplexis, et al.
The Doric Column
Epi III--Episemon et al.
This term, meaning "vain or needless repetition," is a rhetorical term but is a word far more interesting than any web description of the term leads you to believe.
Classifying the Term
Let's begin with how it "fits" into the categories of rhetoric. In Professor Burton's online list of rhetorical terms, he includes battology as one of thirty or so "vices" that speakers should avoid. His list does not, of course, originate with himself. Probably the most authoritative early list of the vices to be avoided appears in Aelius Donatus' book De ceteriis vitiis. Donatus was a fourth century A.D. grammarian, supposedly the teacher of Jerome, and so influential in the development of the field that in medieval times if someone was to give a student what we would call a "handbook" or "introduction" to a field, he would "donatize" him. In his book on vices, he only lists 12 stylistic vices, all of which appear in Burton's list, but battology is not on Donatus' list. For the sake of completeness I will list the twelve here: solecism, barbarism, acyrologia, cacemphaton, pleonasmus, perissologia, macrologia, tautalogia, eclipsis, tapinosis, cacosyntheton and amphibolia.
Not only are you probably thinking that your life was in no way improved, and maybe hurt, by my listing of these words, but you should know that there appears to be overlap even among these twelve terms. For example, several of them suggest vices of excessive repetition or longwindedness. Donatus has probably taken up whatever rhetorical flotsam and jetsam came down to him and decided that each separate word denoted a separate vice, though they may have just been different words for the same phenomena (like Professor Haeckel's introduction of benthos in the late 19th century). It is like modern real estate contracts, where someone is "taking, holding, selling, demising, leasing, offering, transferring, etc." interest in land. The lawyer's approach is to put in terms rather than take them out; you never can be to sure, you know. This was probably what was going on with Donatus and is definitely the situation in Burton's online vocabulary.
The first appearances of this term in English seem to be early in the 17th century. It means, according to the OED, "a needless and tiresome repetition in speaking or writing." Though all the instances of its early use aren't theological, many of them are. For example, from 1712 is the exhortation, "When we pray, let us not battologize." The New Testament reality behind that statement is Jesus' urging his disciples, in the Sermon on the Mount, that "in your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard (Matt. 6:7)." The verb here for babbling on is "battologeo." Plain speaking; plain praying. It is probably the case that with the effloresence of Puritanism in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in England, which was committed to simple living and internalization of biblical precepts, the term battology arose and even flourished. A Puritan preacher then just picked up on the biblical term and Anglicized it.
The Story of Battus
Yet the origin isn't biblical. Battus is a person whose story is told briefly by Herodotus in Book IV of his Histories. Though some of the earlier sections of Herodotus are sometimes read in college humanities classes, almost no one reads Book IV today. Battus was the son of Polymnestus and Phronima but had a speech defect: he "lisped and stammered (Histories IV.154)." So bothered was he with his speech impediment that he went to the oracle at Delphi for relief, but she told him, "O Battus, for a voice you come; but the lord Apollo/ Sends you to Libya, nurse of flocks, to build a city." Herodotus, as is his wont, tries to give an explanation of the name "Battus," explaining that it is the Libyan word for "king," and that the lad didn't really have this name until he moved to Africa, but the story goes on to show how Battus reluctantly moves to an island off the Libyan coast and then to Libya itself. No more mention is made of his lisping and stammering. The story of Battus concludes with the establishment of his family in Libya through his grandson, Battus the Fortunate.
Thinking about Battus
This is about all we have. And then we have the appearance of the word battology in English in the early 17th century, via the Gospel of Matthew. And then it becomes a rhetorical vice after the 17th century and is included as such in online guides to rhetoric today. But, wait a moment. If you were Battus, wouldn't you feel just a wee bit angry? Here you have a speech impairment, nothing that you did to deserve it, and people take your disability and make it into a rhetorical vice, a fault, something that speakers should seek to discard. Battus went to the oracle to try to cure it; he did all he could, but it didn't apparently alter his condition. Yet it is his disability that has come down to us. Wouldn't it be analogous to invent the term "Rooseveltize" to mean to "cripple" or "impair with polio?"
I think Battus has gotten a very raw deal, but it is not clear how to repair the damage. After all, we could stop using the word--not that many people know the word in the first place. But maybe we should use it with an asterisk after it, or with a knowing smile, a smile indicating that we know how it has been used, and then try to fill the term with broader meaning. I think that is probably doomed to failure, however. It may just be that until someone really committed to Battus' cause arises he simply will have to be associated with people who vainly repeat their words. You wonder if justice is ever really done.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long