On the pleonasm watch

On WQXR (classical music in NYC), yesterday’s playlist included what was announced as:

Debussy’s one and only string quartet

The expression one and only looks pleonastic here; either Debussy’s one string quartet or Debussy’s only string quartet would have done, but one and only nails things down twice. Despite that, the expression is very common, and is treated as an idiom in some dictionaries.

(On the Debussy, the String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893), there’s a Wikipedia page.)

The Collins Dictionary treats one and only as pair of idioms:

(adjective) incomparable; unique

(as noun) the object of all one’s love   ⇒ “you are my one and only”

It doesn’t tell us that both the adjective and the noun require definite-determiner syntax, with either the definite article the or a possessive determiner. In addition, the examples it gives of the adjective are all of the potentially pleonastic sort, glossable as ‘one’ or ‘only’ (or, better, ‘sole’) and not comfortably as ‘unique’ or ‘incomparable’:

For a long time, going home to Florence had been my one and only aim, preoccupying me to the exclusion of all else. (Elizabeth Harris, Time of the Wolf)

My one and only lover was almost old enough to be my father, remember? (Christina Jones, Tickled Pink)

With the sight dead on target, he fired his one and only shot. (Idries Shah, Kara Kush)

These all have possessive + one and only. An example (of many) of the one and only:

Literally The One And Only Time I Have Ever Had A Nosebleed, Ever (link)

The expression one and only unpacks two aspects of the intended meaning — and indeed NOAD2 glosses the most common use of the adjective sole as ‘one and only’! So we should be suspicious of the pleonasm label.

But others have been less cautious. On the entertaining Word a Day=Poem a Day site, we find this entry from 2/23/09, when the word of the day was pleonasm and the poem was:

It is the one and only
Most unique
of its own special kind.
I picked it out myself alone
With my own hands.
Your past history
Makes me certainly confident
That the end result
Is that it will be your most favorite
Gift, bar none.

And the tin-eared peever Richard Lederer published this passage twice (in Crazy English of 1989 and The Miracle of Language of 1991):

The past history of the pleonasm gives us but a small inkling (can an inkling ever be large?) of the pleonasms that will fill our future history. Embedded in the idea of experience and history is the past, yet we persist in talking about someone’s past experience and past history. Plans and warnings, in contrast, are by definition futuristic, yet every day we hear about future plans, advance warnings, and forewarnings.

… I do not overexaggerate, much less exaggerate, when I say that, far and away, the one and only pleonasm I most hate with a passion (rather than calmly hating it) is “at this point in time.”

What Lederer (along with many others) misses here is the function of the “extra” (“needless”) words in many of these examples of highlighting aspects of meaning.

Now to the noun use, which is clearly idiomatic. Its reference to a love object has made it a source of titles of all sorts, among them:

My One and Only is a musical with a book by Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer and music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. The musical ran on Broadway [1983] and [the] West End [2002]. (link)

“The One and Only” is a [1991] song written by Nik Kershaw, and recorded by the British singer Chesney Hawkes. Produced by Kershaw and Alan Shacklock, Hawkes’s recording was featured in the 1991 film Buddy’s Song which starred Hawkes as the eponymous Buddy and Roger Daltrey (of rock band The Who) as his father. … The song was later featured in the film Doc Hollywood, also from 1991 (starring Michael J. Fox) (link)

My One and Only is a 2009 comedy film loosely based on a story about George Hamilton’s early life on the road with his mother and brother, featuring anecdotes that Hamilton had told to Merv Griffin. (link)

“One and Only” is the ninth track on Adele’s 21 [2011]. It was written by Adele, Dan Wilson, and Greg Wells. [Fom the lyrics: “Let me be your one and only”] (link)

Emily Giffin’s 2014 novel, The One & Only. (link)

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