The Grammarphobia Blog

Dali’s droopy clocks

Q: It drives me crazy when people describe something as surrealistic. Shouldn’t one just say it’s surreal? I know there’s a difference between “real,” meaning actual, and, “realistic,” but does that apply here? It seems to me that “surrealistic” is just another redundancy.

A: The adjectives “surreal” and “surrealistic” mean essentially the same thing. But it’s arguable whether “surrealistic” is redundant or not. I would say not, and I’ll explain why later.

Both words are 1930s offshoots of two earlier ones, the noun “surrealism” (1917) and the adjective “surrealist” (1918), coined by the French painter Guillaume Apollinaire (originally as surréalisme and surréaliste).

The French words were immediately absorbed into English, where “surrealist” became a noun (meaning an adherent of surrealism) as well as an adjective. The precise English equivalents, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, would be “super-realism” and “super-realist.”

The later coinage “surreal” is described by the OED as a back-formation, derived from “surrealism” and “surrealist.” (A back-formation is a word created by dropping a prefix or suffix from an existing word.)

Other words derived from the two originals are “surrealistic,” “surrealistically,” “surreally,” and “surreality,” most of them from the 1930s and originally meaning “characteristic or suggestive of surrealism.”

So what’s the reality behind all these words?

“Surrealism” was a movement in literature and art that sought to express the workings of the subconscious mind by using techniques like juxtaposing realistic images in an irrational way. Think of Salvador Dali and his droopy clocks.

As the poet André Breton explained in his Surrealist Manifesto (1924), the aim was to transmute “those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality, so to speak.”

These days, “surrealism” and company are used both inside and outside the worlds of art and literature. In everyday language, both “surreal” and “surrealistic” can simply mean dreamlike or unreal, and in my opinion they’re a bit overused.

Now for another opinion, and you’re free to disagree. I say there’s no redundancy here because “surreal” and “surrealistic” might be used in slightly different ways. You might say, for example, that a play is “surrealistic” (meaning it has some characteristics of the surreal) without being “surreal” on the whole.

There are parallel cases in English where two derivatives or offshoots of a word may or may not take on separate meanings. For example, many word pairs in English have both “ic” and “ical” endings.

Sometimes these adjectives mean the same thing, and the choice is yours, as is the case with “botanic” and “botanical.” But sometimes the words mean different things, as “politic” and “political.” I recently had a blog item about this.

Sorry to go on at such length, but this language racket can get surreal!

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