linguistics and lexicography Love English

A hotchpotch of reduplication

Argy-bargy and lovey-dovey lie on opposite ends of the interpersonal scale, but they have something obvious in common: both are reduplicatives.

Reduplication is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-aye, mishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit.



Reduplicatives emerge early in our language-learning lives. As infants in the babbling phase we reduplicate syllables to utter mama, dada, nana and papa, which is where these pet names come from. Later we use moo-moo, choo-choo, wee-wee and bow-wow (or similar) to refer to familiar things. The repetition, as well as being fun, might help children develop and practise the pronunciation of sounds.

As childhood progresses, reduplicatives remain popular, popping up in children’s books, songs and rhymes. Many characters in children’s stories have reduplicated names: Humpty Dumpty, Chicken Licken and Handy Andy, to name a few.

Reduplication can be categorised as follows: exact or repeating reduplication (bye-bye, hush-hush, goody-goody), rhyming reduplication (itsy-bitsy, okey-dokey, boogie woogie), and ablaut reduplication (chit-chat, tip-top, riff-raff). Ablaut is a term introduced by Jacob Grimm; it refers to vowel change, which in reduplicatives often follows certain patterns: zigzag, knick-knack, mingle-mangle, or criss-cross, flip-flop, sing-song.

Clusters of letters recur, as in shilly-shally, dilly-dally, silly billy and willy-nilly, while ‘h’ is a common first letter, appearing thus in helter-skelter, heebie-jeebies, hurdy-gurdy, hurly-burly, higgledy-piggledy, hocus-pocus, and hob-nob. Some reduplication is onomatopoetic or echoic: pitter-patter, splish splash, ding-dong and tick-tock are like miniature poems, popular with people of all ages who appreciate the playful evocation of the sound referred to.

In her paper ‘A crosslinguistic study of reduplication’ (PDF), Shanthi Nadarajan writes that both repetition and reduplication ‘exist functionally and pragmatically in all types of everyday English’, and that while not all reduplication is meaningful, it is undoubtedly ‘interesting word play which can serve to enrich any language’.

Reduplication is for everyone, be they arty-farty or fuddy-duddy, ragbag or hoity-toity, razzle-dazzle or nitty-gritty. You can use it on a walkie-talkie, or to distract listeners from your mumbo-jumbo. Chances are you’ve created your own examples of ‘shm-reduplication’, as in fancy schmancy or rhyme shmyme (both shm– and schm– are used). There’s nothing wishy-washy about my feelings for reduplication: I think it’s just super-duper.

Email this Post Email this Post

About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

25 Comments

  • Great post, Stan, and an elegant survey of a subject which, I must admit, I had never really given much thought to. With regard to ‘shm-reduplication’, you’ve probably heard that joke about the mother who takes her son to a psychiatrist, and his diagnosis is: ‘I’m afraid your son is suffering from an Oedipus complex‘. To which she replies: ‘Oedipus, schmoedipus – who cares, as long as he loves his mother?’

  • Thanks, Michael. I had fun collecting the examples – some of them are very sing-song! And thanks: I don’t think I’d heard that Oedipus joke before. Another reduplicative I like is the Irish term ruaille-buaille, which also has currency in Irish English. And one more: you’ll enjoy Language Log‘s take on a cartoon with the phrase “friendly friend friendly”, which they call “contrastive focus reduplication”.

  • This is a bit off topic, but for some reason I was reminded of James Thurber’s advice in The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Guide to Modern English Usage on forming adverbs from adjectives ending in -ly which was, essentially, don’t. (You can find the text here: http://downwithtyranny.blogspot.com/2010/01/saturday-thurber-ladies-and-gentlemens.html) My parents were tickled by the notion and every so often would produce new -lily words with an air of quiet satisfaction

  • Kerry: That’s an interesting question. I supose there is variation in the type, popularity and distribution of reduplicated phrases in various Englishes, but I don’t know if there have been systematic studies of this. Reduplicatives certainly are common in ‘cutesy’ labels for things, such as booky wook, and in terms of endearment taking the same form.

    Liz: Thank you: Thurber is always a treat, and never entirely off topic! English has more than its share of awkwardnesses, and comedy is sometimes the best line to take on it.

  • Liz: I thought it best to receive your digression as friendlily as possible.

    Orin: Thank you; that’s a great article. I’m very surprised there wasn’t more enthusiasm among publishers for a dictionary of reduplicatives!
    I enjoyed the discussion in the comments too. I have friends from Wagga Wagga, and was tempted to include it here alongside Fozzy Bear’s Wocka wocka.
    Last week the Guardian (under “What is your favourite word?) had a foreign reduplicative: pili-pala, apparently a Welsh word for butterfly.

  • Nice post, Stan. Don’t forget “cray-cray” (crazy), the only reduplicated example I know of in the most recent fad for clipping words (awk, obvs, totes), which you’ve remarked on elsewhere.

    Japanese is interesting because it’s a fully developed language for science etc., but it’s full of pidgin/creole-like reduplicative adverbs (and non- as well, especially for noncontinuous actions).

    For example, there’s only one verb for “rain” (furu) but you can augment that:

    – zaazaa furu: pour very heavily
    – jaajaa furu: pour with splashing
    – bishabisha furu: rain continuously with splashing
    – bishobisho furu: rain soakingly
    – doshadosha furu: rain with pelting (cf. NOUN doshaburi [do: dirt, sha: sand, voiced form of furi: raining]: raining cats and dogs)
    – parapara furu: sprinkle
    – shitoshito furu: drizzle peacefully
    – shoboshobo furu: drizzle gloomily
    – botsubotsu furu (weaker: potsupotsu furu) starting to rain a little

    And it’s not for just actions but also states and emotions (burabura: aimlessly, atafuta: feel flustered).

  • That’s a lovely list of reduplicated Japanese, Kevin. Thank you! It leaves the impression that furu could be endlessly reduplicatively added to.
    Although I have a soft spot for some of the faddish clippings you mention, I’m not a big fan of cray-cray and have never used it myself. As abbreviations go, I think it’s only so-so.

  • Stan, I was reading the reference to the Welsh word for a butterfly, possibly some creature pale and fragile? I have Scots ancestry and I thought about the word peely-wally or peelie-wallie.
    She’s a wee bit peely-Wally or poorly this morning!
    I had also read and was intrigued by the reduplication suggestions running through my head,and find the contents of these blogs mind boggling.Another Scots word for something small ispeerie which I’d particular to the Orcadian dialect is peelie.

  • Peely-wally’s a great word – so expressive. I lived in Scotland for a number of years, during which it entered my vocabulary. I remember being greeted with incomprehension by my English family when I first used it south of the border. Hoity-toity’s another good one…

  • Margaret, Liz, thank you; I hadn’t ever encountered peely-wally before. It’s like a combination of poorly, peakish, and wan, but it’s very much its own term. We really need that dictionary of reduplicatives!

  • Lovely post, Stan. My favourite is ‘hoo-ha’, defined in MED as noisy excitement, arguments, or complaints.

  • Thank you, Beth. I like hoo-ha too. It reminds me of two things: brouhaha, which has a similar sound and meaning, and Al Pacino’s exclamations in Scent of a Woman.

  • […] A hotchpotch of reduplication is a brief introduction to, and survey of, reduplicatives. Reduplication is where “a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term”, such as aye-aye, hotchpotch, and ping-pong: Reduplication can be categorised as follows: exact or repeating reduplication (bye-bye, hush-hush, goody-goody), rhyming reduplication (itsy-bitsy, okey-dokey, boogie woogie), and ablaut reduplication (chit-chat, tip-top, riff-raff). Ablaut is a term introduced by Jacob Grimm; it refers to vowel change, which in reduplicatives often follows certain patterns: zigzag, knick-knack, mingle-mangle, or criss-cross, flip-flop, sing-song. […]

  • […] in text messages, internet chat and casual speech, while long versions – like the rhyming reduplications okie-dokie, okey-doke(y), and the Ned Flanders-y okely-dokely or okily-dokily – are also popular. […]

  • Great! Very helpful, but could give name a book any of this came from? I’m writing a thesis a would really like to use it

  • Hi Stan, I’ve come late to this (spotted a mention on twitter) and – a bit off topic, more about pronunciation than anything – but the mention of Wagga Wagga and Aboriginal Australians in Orin’s post, and underneath a quote beginning ‘train language’, triggered a memory of a story I was told about a couple of Australians on a train in Britain who said they were travelling to ‘Looger-Berooger’. Turned out they meant Loughborough…

  • Also very late here, but if this post had appeared in the US or Canada, the title would have been “A hodgepodge of reduplication.” We’d also use tidbit while Brits would say titbit. There’s a Bella Bella in British Columbia, a Walla Walla in Washington and a supermarket chain called Piggly Wiggly in the US South and Midwest, so I think it’s fair to say (North) Americans like their reduplication every bit as much as Brits and Aussies.

  • Joanna: Thanks for your comment, and I’m very sorry for the late reply. I don’t recall what books I referred to while writing this post, but Shanthi Nadarajan’s paper (linked in the post) and Alan Yu’s ‘Reduplication in English Homeric Infixation’ are two of the papers I consulted. You can also refer to this post, if you like. Good luck with your thesis!

    Olivia: I love that. Loughborough council should adopt Looger-Berooger as a variant. (I’m sorry for the late reply; I wasn’t getting automatic notifications.)

    David: Thanks for those great examples. Hodgepodge is common in UK English too, but I have a slight preference for hotchpotch. We’re fond of reduplication in Ireland, too.

  • I have 3 songs about reduplications on my website, “Giorgio’s Ukable Parodies”. One is a singable lesson, and the other 2 constitute a lexicon of reduplications with loose alphabetical arrangement. They can all be sung to the tune of Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements”, which is, of course, a borrowing from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Major General’s Song”. If you enjoy these, or otherwise, please leave a comment.

Leave a Comment