Super-duper reduplicative words

The first words we speak are reduplicative. Around the world, babies refer to their parents by simple, repeating syllables: mamatata, and so on. 


Two readers sent in their favorite reduplicative words, two-part words in which the second half is a repeat or rhyme of the first. English has at least 2,000 of these, according to linguist Nils Thun. Some words, like bye-bye and tidbit (titbit in Britain), are so common that we may not even notice the reduplication. With others – roly-poly, crinkum-crankum, higgledy-piggledy – it’s impossible to ignore. 

The first words we speak are reduplicative. Around the world, babies refer to their parents by simple, repeating syllables: mama, dada, papa, tata, and so on. As a result, reduplicative words can sound childish or silly. Exact repetition can also suggest boredom or thoughtlessness, as with blah blah blah and yada yada, which “indicat[e] (usually dismissively) that further details are predictable or evident from what has preceded,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

More often, the second part rhymes with the first, as with hurly-burly. This word is unusual among its reduplicative kin because it once had a solemn, literary tone, and appeared in early modern royal histories as a “dignified” way to say “uproar, turmoil.” My readers sent in some words I had never heard of, including niminy-piminy, “affectedly refined: finicky.” The OED suggests this may have been an onomatopoeic rendering of upper-class 18th-century speech; in the earliest citation, a young woman practices the fashionable accent by repeating the phrase in front of a mirror. Or it might derive from Namby Pamby, a mocking nickname given to Ambrose Philips by his more famous 18th-century contemporaries, Alexander Pope and Henry Carey. Philips wrote what they considered to be overly sentimental poems for children; namby-pamby thus means “insipid.” 

Ablaut reduplication involves a vowel shift from a short “i” or long “e” to an “a” sound, as with shilly-shally (“to show hesitation or lack of decisiveness or resolution”). This word comes from an old idiom, “shill I, shall I?” which depicts how it feels to be caught in the throes of indecision. Other examples are dillydally (“to waste time by loitering or delaying”), wishy-washy (“lacking in character or determination”), flip-flop (“a sudden reversal”), and crinkum-crankum (“fancifully or excessively intricate and elaborate”). “Ablaut” refers to an unwritten rule of English: We list vowel sounds in a certain order, as with the verb forms sing, sang, sung or drink, drank, drunk.

Though many reduplicative words are mildly derisive because of their association with children’s speech, they can have more positive connotations. Flapper slang transformed the bee’s knees, which had meant “small, insignificant” in the 19th century, into “the acme of perfection” in the 1920s.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Super-duper reduplicative words
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today