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.