10 Varieties of Linguistic Siamese Twins

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One of the most intriguing aspects of idiomatic phrases is their fixed nature, an aspect acknowledged in two terms for the class of idioms distinguished by the use of the conjunction and or the conjunction or between the constituent words: irreversible binomials and freezes. (They are also referred to as binomials or binomial pairs, or are identified by the colloquial expression “Siamese twins.”)

Ten sometimes overlapping variations of linguistic Siamese twins (which, because they are often clichés, should be used with caution) follow, including a category for triplets:

1. Binomials connected with and include “alive and well,” “nuts and bolts,” and “skin and bone.”

2. Binomials connected with or include “give or take,” “more or less,” and “win or lose.”

3. Binomials connected with other words include “dawn till dusk,” “front to back,” “head over heels.”

4. Binomials that contain opposites or antonyms include “days and nights,” “high or low,” and “up and down.”

5. Binomials that contain related words or synonyms include “house and home,” “leaps and bounds,” and “prim and proper.”

6. Binomials that contain alliteration include “friend or foe,” “rant and rave,” and “tried and true.”

7. Binomials that contain numbers include “four or five” — note that the linguistic convention is to always state the lower number first (a figurative idiom is this category is “at sixes and sevens,” meaning “in a confused state”)

8. Binomials that contain similar-sounding words: “doom and gloom,” “out and about,” and “wear and tear.” This category includes rhyming slang, in which a word or phrase is slang code for a word that rhymes with the second binomial term in the phrase (even though only the first binomial term may constitute the slang) and is either random, as in minces, from “mince pies,” for eyes, or suggestive, as in trouble, from “trouble and strife,” for wife.

9. Binomials that contain exact or near repetition include “dog eat dog,” “kill or be killed,” or “neck and neck.”

10. Trinomials, which contain three terms, include “blood, sweat, and tears,” “left, right, and center,” and “win, lose, and draw.”

Take care, when using these clichés, to reproduce them correctly (unless you are deliberately — and obviously — distorting them for emphatic or humorous effect, as when referring to fashionably ripped jeans as “tear and wear”) so that erroneous usage does not have a negative impact on your overall message.

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9 thoughts on “10 Varieties of Linguistic Siamese Twins”

  1. What is the consensus opinion on the use of hyphenation with these phrases (i.e. alive-and-well), so as to avoid any confusion when embedded in a sentence?

  2. I don’t understand #8 and not sure I ever heard of it. Are you saying, for example, that the entire phrase “trouble and strife” is substituted for the word “wife”? If so, how would that be used in conversation? And are you saying that the phrase “minced pies” is substituted for “eyes”? So you would say, “My minced pies are tired”? I’m totally confused! Can you expand/clarify and maybe give more examples of this?

  3. I’m guessing that “trouble and strife” might be used like “ball and chain” as a not-too-complimentary synonym for “wife,” although I’ve never heard it either. I’ve also never heard “minces” or “mince pies” as a synonym for “eyes”. Where did those come from?

  4. Short answer: Cockney Rhyming Slang (CRS) started out as the argot of “less-than-reputable” types among the working-classes of East London (A ‘cockney’ is one born “within the sound of Bow Bells .

    The aim was to confuse those not in “the gang” by replacing a common word with a rhyming pair – and then eliminating the second element. So, “This is me (my) wife” > “This is me trouble ‘n’ strife” > “This is me/the trouble” or “it’s under the stairs” > “…under the apples ‘n’ pears” > “…under the apples.”

    CRS is constantly changing – as outsiders get to learn what a phrase means, speakers change it, often incorporating contemporary personalities of note.

    A further refinement is to substitute a different term, as in “I’m a bit Mozart = …drunk” < “Brahms ‘n’ Liszt = pissed” (Brahms and Liszt were composers, and so was Mozart).

    A particularly Australian example is “dog’s eye ‘n’ dead (h)orse” for a “hot meat pie and (tomato) sauce,” a popular snack.


  5. Suggest that you find another way to say what you are trying too say here without the blatant use of a dated and obviously racist and insensitive term. It’s completely unnecessary, and as a writing blog I would hope you would see that.

  6. @ Shawn Sweeney

    After having done some research I disagree that the term “Siamese Twins” is racist or insensitive. It refers to the race of the first well know conjoined twins who both lived long, successful lives. Like Band-aid and Kleenex the name became synonymous with the product (or in this case the birth anomaly).

    Also, this isn’t just a cute way to title it, as stated in the introduction it’s the causal term for binomial pairs.

    I can’t really think of any way that it can be used in a derogatory manner. It doesn’t imply that conjoined twins are from Siam because that doesn’t make sense. Plus so few people know that Siam is now Thailand. They have few/no prejudices about Siam because they don’t know where it is. It doesn’t refer to all twins in Siam being conjoined either.

    While the term Siam may be racist (it means “dark skinned” in (according to Wikipedia at least) a “contemptuous” way), the word Siamese in this phrase isn’t used to refer to the skin color of the twins or their nationality.

    I could be wrong. I’ve just never heard it used in a derogatory manner nor do I know anyone with the condition. What brought you to your conclusion?

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