Recursion Excursion   1 comment


Let’s go.

The mechanism of recursion is a delightful language device that can inject comedy or solemnity into a phrase simply by using a word twice in one sentence. Generally, we find that repeating the operative word within a sentence demonstrates a lack of eloquence and a limited vocabulary. In recursive phrases, a word is not merely repeated; its definition is projected onto a copy of itself, creating two tiers of meaning. Recursion is perhaps most effective when spoken and can serve the purpose of humor or that of enriching a concept.

1. Tritonthink is the worst blog in the history of history.

Because it’s not the easiest of concepts, let’s talk a little more about recursion. Recursion means that something is repeated. Recursive phrases use the versatility of some word and apply one of that word’s definitions to itself so that it recurs within the phrase in an appealing way. Some versatile word is used once initially to establish a concept, then its definition is applied to the first appearance of itself, creating a dual structure of meaning. We end up with two dimensions of the same word within a phrase in which one use of the word swallows the other.


The history of history loves the fishes ’cause they’re so delicious.

Take another look at Sentence 1. One might simply say that Tritonthink is the worst blog in history and get the point across just fine. However, by recursing “history”, an emphatic and humorous effected is added. The word “history” is used twice in the same form- Tritonthink is not the worst blog in historic history, but in the history of history. Within “history of history”, we have two tiers of the word with the initial use of the word engulfing the second.  Of note is that the second “history” is the root and “the history of” is what has been inserted though it comes syntactically before the root.

2. Now, she’s just a memory of a memory.

While the main purpose of the recursion in Sentence 1 was to infuse an element of comedy, Sentence 2, as it strikes my intuition, drips sentimental solemnity. Despairing effects aside, the recursion, “memory of a memory” has a clear tiered structure- this girl exists within a memory that’s within another memory. The memory of this girl is swallowed by a cloudier memory. Recursion works because you can have a memory of anything, including a memory. Someone who’s famous for being famous or writes books about books can be famous for anything or write a book about anything, making recursion possible.

3. Because I wanted a memory of a memory, I took a picture of a picture.

The recursion in Sentence 3 is much like Sentence 2 and is easy to visualize. A Polaroid of another Polaroid comes quickly to my mind. The pictures are concentric. It is conceptually very similar to a “dream within a dream”, but with images imposed on paper instead of wisps of cognitive scribbles. What Sentence 3 shows is that a physical object can be recursive if it is sufficiently versatile. History and memories are more abstract concepts, but a picture is concrete, tangible. Clearly, not all physical objects are qualified candidates for recursion- a toothpick of a toothpick or a banana of a banana make no sense.


That blessed arrangement- that dream within a dream.

Attributes that are physical features are often candidates for recursion because they are concrete nouns but also describe their agent. “His muscles have muscles,” and “Her leg hair has hair,” are simpler examples of recursion with very clear tiers. To say “His tears cried tears” exponentially increases the number of tears, and perhaps the sadness, but potentially at the risk of perceived sincerity. The more concrete and physically descriptive, the more the effect tends toward the comical and away from genuine intensification. Again, some attributes simply do not work: “His ears have ears” doesn’t convey to me that this individual has particularly sensitive hearing.

4. Kobe Bryant is so famous, his Wikipedia page has a Wikipedia page.

In Sentence 4, we have a humorous example that is not meant to be at all serious. A Wikipedia page is not a physical piece of paper we can touch, but it can be viewed by the eye; ultimately it is a concrete concept. Things like pictures, dreams, and Wikipedia pages stack readily and its fairly easy to keep track of the tiers. We can imagine this telescopic scenario of Wikipedia pages about Wikipedia pages and Wikipedia pages about that Wikipedia page. When it’s easy to keep track of the tiers, it’s easy to imagine infinitely recursive concepts. Infinite recursion is an intriguing philosophical concept, but eats up a lot of mental hard drive space and can get annoying. Recursion should generally be performed once.

5. When I stay up late at night, I have thoughts about thoughts.

Sentence 5 isn’t as intellectual as it might sound, and lacking an intentional element of humor, it can only strive to be viewed as adding depth. Thoughts being the subject of one’s thoughts is a graspable recursive concept, but could have easily been screwed up. Sentence 5 could read “When I stay up late at night, I think about thoughts.” Having two different forms of the root ruins the effect of recursion. It may be tempting to use different forms of a root, and though that may be appropriate for some purposes, it is not an acceptable form of recursion.

6. My hair was messy from my nap, so I used a comb that could comb.

Another error to avoid is redundancy. Sentence 6 does not have a valid instance of recursion. A comb that can comb is just redundant, and nothing is gained by repeating “comb”. Another layer and an intuitive effect on the connotation should accompany legitimate recursions. Redundancy is redundantly redundant. Avoid this egregious error as well as the error of different forms of the root when utilizing recursion.

Be cool. Follow the rules.

Okay, that’s the basics of recursion! Remember that recursion means a word repeats, but that to be meaningful, a word must repeat while being applied to a copy of itself. Doing this creates a tiered structure between the two instances of the word, often with one engulfing the other. Do not change the form of the roots or just repeat a word redundantly without creating layers of meaning for that word. You will find that many roots have the potential to be infinitely recursive, but it is most often wise to resist any temptation to recurse more than once per phrase. Follow these rules and recursion will help add either humor or solemnity to your chosen phrases from now ’til the future of the future.

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Posted April 3, 2010 by Wada in Linguistics

One response to “Recursion Excursion

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