Words That Repeat Themselves

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'HA-HA!" is a lot more light-hearted and frivolous than "ha!" So is "ho-ho!" than "ho!"

Why is that?

It is not simply that "ha-ha" denotes laughter while "ha" is more like outrage; nor can it be because "ho-ho" is so inextricably associated with the jollity of white-bearded gaffers in red coats parading Fifth Avenue for charity in late December, while "ho" is a kind of curt, indignant expostulation you might make on the spur (as it were) of the moment to an inattentive horse.

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The reason - or at least this is what "Fowler's Modern English Usage," as revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, argues - has to do with the nature of "reduplicated words."

These are such useful and cheerful words as flim-flam, hurdy-gurdy, higgledy-piggledy, harum-scarum, and hocus-pocus.

"Most of us find an engaging quality in these words," Fowler says, and under this heading he includes "both plain reduplications such as teeny-weeny and also those with a change of vowel sound ('apophony') such as tiptop."

He goes on to speculate that the appeal of such words may go back to our initial infant forays into language: "it is through them that we enter the world of speech, progressing from the first tentative mum-mum and dad-dad to the more ambitious teeny-weeny, tootsie-wootsie, and piggy-wiggy." (He speaks for himself here. I never said "tootsie-wootsie" and I probably said "yum-yum" before I said "Mum-Mum," but I do not blame Fowler for not being aware of this.)

Fowler does not consider the possibility that our early linguistic efforts may have a direct connection with animals. Dogs say "woof-woof" and birds say "tweet-tweet." Or at least that's what the grown-ups tell us.

The classic exponents of nonsense - the 19th century's Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll - extended the genre. To them we owe Tweedledum and Tweedledee and the Quangle Wangle, which are not to be sneezed at, invention-wise. Lear's toeless Pobble winkelty-binkelty-tinkled a bell "so that all the world could hear him." Lear, in December 1859, (I love the precision of this piece of history) coined the word scribblebibbles to describe some of his disconnected reflections.

A fair number of reduplication words denote a degree of disorder, but not of any cosmic sort - only the kind that would elicit clucking sounds from aunts. "Tut-tut!" they might mutter, or "tsk! tsk!" When things are topsy-turvy, or a hodgepodge, or a tike on a bike goes helter-skelter or pell-mell around a coffee table, there may be a gently repetitive clicking of the tongue. Such antics tend to give the armchaired and dignified the heebie-jeebies. They come up with such words for the very youthful as whippersnapper or riffraff or, more indulgently, silly billy.

Such words are far from extreme. More worrying, perhaps, is when someone is disparaged by a reduplication like namby-pamby. (This is not a wishy-washy or airy-fairy example of humdrum mumbo jumbo: It is a willy-nilly, slam-bang, wingding of an insult.)

Those of an auntish disposition are not always without fiddle-faddle foibles of their own. They may have an exaggerated fondness for chitchat, tittle-tattle, hobnob or even claptrap. But this is miminy-piminy (as they say in Britain) stuff, and is best laughed at and forgotten.

Well ... time moves on (ticktock), and I have to play a promised game of Ping-Pong with a friend who lives in one of the little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky. His abode is a mishmash, filled with gewgaws, knickknacks, and bric-a-brac.

Originally from Soho, he is an odd-bod: he crisscrosses and zigzags around his kitchen all day in his jimjams wearing flip-flops, listening to boogie-woogie on a walkie-talkie.

We get on well, apart from an occasional argy-bargy when he gets hoity-toity. On the whole, I'd say (I wouldn't, actually, but perhaps Fowler would) he is a super-duper fellow and tiptop for a powwow.

Wow.

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