A small alcove in a remote corner of the Language Lounge is designated "Commercial Products Division." Here, ideas buzz about like blowflies on roadkill, many of them destined to enjoy lives of similar duration and stature. One such idea that emerged, some years ago, was for an exhaustive dictionary of reduplicative words in English. We duly teamed up with a colleague (see link below), drew up a book proposal, and shopped it around to esteemed publishing houses. The result: the best response we got was "thanks, but no thanks." It would be fair to say that everyone pooh-poohed the idea.
Being harmless drudges and without delusions of grandeur, the Loungeurs took this smackdown from hoity-toity reference publishers in stride, though we do think that English reduplications get an undeservedly bad press, and our experience with the book proposal only confirmed it. In an attempt to redress this, we take every opportunity in the Lounge to use a reduplication when one is available, often doing so willy-nilly. Who would settle for a words like spineless or indecisive when namby-pamby and wishy-washy are available? Why procrastinate when you can dilly-dally, or express disapproval when you can tut-tut?
To start with the 101: reduplications in English come in three basic flavors:
- reduplications properly so-called, that is, where an identical syllable or pair of syllables is repeated to form a word. This we call the yo-yo type.
- rhyming reduplications, in which parts one and two of a word differ only by having a different initial consonant sound (that is to say, in which rhyming words or syllables fuse to form a single term). This we call the claptrap type.
- vowel-shift reduplications (our personal favorite), in which identical consonant sounds or clusters festoon two different vowels in successive parts of a word. This we call the flimflam type.
- reduplications in which a nondescript syllable (often schwa, with or without a consonant accompanying) intervenes in the middle of a word that otherwise fits a category above. Such words, when pronounced, still evoke the small frisson of delight that is the property of all reduplications. These we could call the folderol, bric-a-brac, or hi-de-hi type.
To these we like to add an unofficial category, namely
If you notice a pattern here other than the ones concerning vowels and consonants, it might be that none of our illustrative words would be out of place in a putdown. So unfair, we say! But it is a feature of reduplication in English that many, including pipe-smoking professors in tweed jackets, have commented on: a large proportion of English reduplications do indeed denote something trivial, nonsensical, disparaged, substandard, silly, or at the very least, more often connected with mirth than sobriety.
Where did it all begin? Probably long before folks started rounding up dated citation cards for dictionaries, for it seems as natural as the weather to settle on a reduplication to denote a familiar thing: people like them because they're easy to remember and fun to articulate. This may partly explain why, for example, "Little Italy" has 1.8 million hits on Google, while "Little Greece" has 800. It seems likely that when there are competing terms to designate a thing informally and one of them is a reduplication, it will eventually win out: think of study buddy, Bali belly, motor voter, or half-caf, all relatively recent additions to English that seem likely to endure.
Reduplication exists in some form in all human languages, even the dead ones; in some languages it has a particular semantic or grammatical role to play, such as pluralization (Malay), broadening the meaning of its root (Turkish), or the forming of frequentatives (Bantu languages). In English, however, reduplication seems to serve mainly as a handy signal to your readers or listeners that you are departing from gravity, respect, formality, and decorum, to head off in the other direction. This, we suspect, accounts for the fact that reduplications are largely regarded as the province of hoi polloi, and may also explain why our proposal for a serious redup dictionary ended up in the ha-ha.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists crisscross, mishmash, pitter-patter, and riffraff among its earliest reduplications, all from the 15th century. Mishmash and riffraff both have changed little in meaning in nearly 500 years; this suggests that the want of dignity associated with reduplications in English got an early start. Some other English reduplications with a pedigree of at least 400 years include whim-wham, flip-flap, clitter-clatter, and tittle-tattle.
What we often wonder - and we hope that readers with insights into other modern languages can illuminate - is whether this unmistakable marker of silliness associated with reduplication in English is present in other languages spoken today. There seems to be something of an argument to be made along those lines for French, which has given English some of its classic reduplications (e.g., bonbon, pell-mell, dada, and froufrou.) On the other hand, our travels in some parts of the world have revealed reduplicative place names and other words that seem to be no cause for gales of laughter. There is, for example, Tan-tan in southern Morocco, Qafqaf in Yemen, and for that matter, Provo and London, which we might call reduplications by accident. The west African garment called a boubou, while it might evoke a snort if worn in Schenectady, is not thought to have a funny name on native soil: reduplication happens! But our travels have not taken us everywhere, and we don't know if the Dutch in Old Amsterdam do it, not to mention the Finns. So we wonder.
Our partner-in-crime for the now-abandoned reduplication dictionary project was Professor Hal Schiffman at Penn, who has an interesting page about reduplications:
The Wikipedia article about reduplication is informative and has many interesting links. You might want to follow the internal link there to the short article on "Shm-reduplication," the only reliably productive form of reduplication in English (as in "Link-schmink! I've got work to do!")
Finally, if you scroll about halfway down the following page you'll find Eve Merriam's delightful poem "By the Shores of Pago Pago," a celebration of reduplication in verse:
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves