By Mark Peters
There are many words I love. Some of my favorites are abyss and buttmunch. I also love many categories of words, such as euphemisms and variations of the f-word. One of my favorite word types makes my heart go thump-thump and pit-a-pat: reduplicative words.
Reduplicative words are far more than a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, though they’re often a load of gaga. If you’ve ever said night night, made a wee-wee, listened to “Helter Skelter,” or supported Mr. T’s war on jibber-jabber, you know some reduplicative words, which repeat all or part of the root. This involves changing a vowel (clip-clop) or a consonant (hocus-pocus). There’s also contrastive reduplication (“I’m not an assassin assassin!”) and schm reduplication (“Dingleberry, schmingleberry!”).
The Oxford English Dictionary is chock full of reduplicative words, many of which were new to me. Here’s a dibble-dabble of reduplicative OED words. If these terms seem unworthy of attention, stop being a doodoo brain and repeat one of my favorite quotations as a mantra. As Isaac Goldberg put it in 1938: “In the dawn of language, the bow-wows and the pooh-poohs and even the ding-dongs must have served man well.”
While I’ve heard this term used in the childish and awesome expression make a boom-boom, I never heard of a British sense that serves as punctuation to a joke, especially a bad one. The OED says boom-boom was the catchphrase of a puppet fox named Basil Brush, who was popular in the 1960s. Here’s an example from Monty Python in 1972: “I’ve got a chauffeur and every time I go to the lavatory he drives me potty! Boom-boom!”
Since this means “In an uncertain or precarious condition.” I relate to it very much, though not as direly as in this 1809 use: “Your father… is standing, as a body may say, quavery-mavery between life and death.” According to my accountant, my financial status is quavery-mavery between freelance writer and freelance hobo.
This self-defining word is used in this 1922 example: “The breeze suddenly blew it to one side, and there on the sand, instead of her two little shoes, was a mermaid’s tail, with a flippy-floppy fin on the end!” I like that sentence, though it seems a little disrespectful to the mermaid community. I recommend this word be reserved for less majestic creatures such as politicians.
Speaking of politics, this word for a blowhard (used since the late 1600s) applies best to those who bluster and bloviate on an Olympic level. A fluster-blusterer is likely to make a wringle-wrangle, which is a “Controversial argument; wordy disputation.” That one appears here in 1882: “The House was not sitting, and there was no wringle-wrangle of debates to furnish material for the columns.” There’s a lot of cross-pollination between reduplicative words and BS euphemisms. Reduplication is a natural way of describing arkymalarky.
Here’s another Briticism I feel deeply ignorant for not knowing. Fnarr fnarr represents “lecherous or half-suppressed laughter” and seems like the sort of thing Benny Hill must have done repeatedly. It dates from the 1980s and is dripping with sexual innuendo, as seen here in 1999: “From the dirty organ (fnarr!) opening (fnarr, fnarr), you just know it’s going to be a suggestive few minutes.” From there, it became an adjective as well, as seen in this wonderfully deadpan Scottish use from 2010: “If he cracks any more gags as fnarr-fnarr as the one about the policewoman taking down your particulars I wouldn’t be surprised to see her throw in her lot with the ladies.”
This is “A trifle; something whimsical or fantastic.” Citations from the 1600s mention “fingle-fangle fashion” and wrangling over “the slightest fingle fangle.” That’s in the same lexical ball park as niffy-naffy. which means “trifling, fussy, concerned with small or unimportant detail; foolish or indecisive.” Niffy-naffy types love their fingle-fangles.
This term has been used since the 1600s as “A representation of the continuous sounds of a harp or the like.” It popped up as recently as 1900: “When he had…finished cocking his viol and twingle-twangling it to his satisfaction.” To my ears, this word sounds a little less heavenly than the dulcet tones of a harp or any other non-ear-torturing instrument. Maybe whoever coined it lived with the Gilbert Gottfried of harp players.
Under a lengthy entry for mingle-mangle (a type of hodgepodge or mishmash), I found this awesome variation, which was used here in 1827: “I wish you could see what is done, which for oddity, mingle-mangleness, and out-of-the-wayness may vie with anything that has ever preceded it.”
The word of reduplicative words is nothing but mingle-mangleness and higgledy-piggledyology, which is not a word I made up. It’s the name of a chapter in theoretical physicist John D. Barrow’s book Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits. This word gives me hope that one day reduplicative words will be respected, perhaps even by their harshest critics: that one day Mr. T and jibber-jabber will walk together hand in hand, as friends.
Mark Peters is a lexicographer, humorist, rabid tweeter, language columnist for Visual Thesaurus, and the blogger behind The Rosa Parks of Blogs and The Pancake Proverbs.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only language, lexicography, word, and etymology articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
There are currently no comments.