Neville Goodman’s metaphor watch: The play’s the thing

neville_goodmanIn the column about icebergs (qv), I mentioned repertoire used instead of number: “expanding repertoire of targets for immune inhibition in bladder cancer”. Repertoire and repertory are two similar words connected with the performing arts.

Repertoire—which is (COD) the body of pieces known or regularly performed by an artist or company—is the commoner in PubMed®; there are about 30,000. Many are articles about the immune repertoire: the number of different sub-types an organism’s immune system makes of any of the six key types of immune protein. There are far more of them than Verdi’s operas or Shakespeare’s plays, from one of the best of which this column takes its title. There is a company called iRepertoire Inc™, who will do the sequencing for you.

Repertoire may have been used earlier in molecular biology, but the first use of immune repertoire in PubMed® was in 1976. Seeking other uses, I came across a few literal ones dealing with plays and opera, and some dealing with birdsong. Metaphorically, there are the repertoires of the cardiac surgeon and the neurosurgeon, although most surgeons nowadays do not enter with a flourish and take a bow at the end. Otherwise, repertoire is largely an unnecessary replacement of a simpler word, most commonly number or range.

A repertoire being a number of plays or operas, each of which is a complex assemblage of words, music, and stage directions, repertoire is just wrong applied to the range of locomotor gaits of a mouse, in “the therapeutic repertoire available for multiple sclerosis”, or referring to the extractive foraging techniques of macaques. Patients report a range, not a repertoire, of symptoms. To write of the umbilicus and “its extensive clinical repertoire” brings to mind belly dancing rather than surgery.

Repertory (COD) is the performance of plays in the repertoire at regular short intervals, but there are two other meanings: as a synonym for repertoire, and as a repository or collection of information. It appears far less often in PubMed—there are about 500—and about half of its uses are, like repertoire, because of an accepted phrase, the repertory grid, which is an interviewing technique.

Common to both words is that they are often superfluous. Instead of, “This behavior is a stereotyped repertory of fore and hind limb movements…”, write just, “This behaviour is stereotypical fore and hind limb movements.” The reasons behind AIDS conspiracy theories is not a “recurring repertory of themes, motifs and characters”, it is just, “recurring themes, motifs and characters.

I feel a little sorry for the Turkish authors of an article about pneumothorax, who I am sure meant respiratory failure when they listed one of its sequelae as repertory failure.

Neville Goodman is a retired consultant anaesthetist and a writer. He is co-author of a book on medical English.

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that my only competing interest is my co-authorship of a book about medical English.