Reduplicatives And Their Meanings

background image 234

After my recent post on reduplicatives, Jaguar asked for definitions of the terms in the post. Of course, now I’m wishing that I hadn’t included quite so many examples, but here goes:

Repeating reduplicatives:

ack-ack – anti aircraft fire
aye-aye – yes (often used by seamen)
bang-bang – sound of a gun
beriberi – disease caused by vitamin B deficiency
bonbon – a sweet
boo-boo – a blunder
bye-bye – goodbye
cha-cha – Latin ballroom dance
choo-choo – train, or sound of the train
chop chop – quickly (from pidgin English)
froufrou – elaborate (usually of a dress)
goody goody – someone virtuous or smug
ha-ha – the sound of laughter
hush hush – confidential
muumuu – loose, bright Hawaiian dress
night-night – goodnight
no-no – forbidden
papa – father
pawpaw – papaya

Rhyming reduplicatives:

airy-fairy – unrealistic; light and delicate
argy-bargy – verbal dispute
artsy-fartsy – pretentiously artistic (also arty-farty)
boo hoo – crying sound
boogie-woogie – piano jazz style
bow-wow – the sound of a dog
easy-peasy – very easy
fuddy-duddy – conservative or dull person
hanky-panky – suspicious behaviour
heebie-jeebies – nervousness
helter-skelter – haphazard
higgledy-piggledy – muddled
hocus-pocus – trickery; a magician’s incantation
hodge-podge – a confused mixture
hoity-toity – haughty
itsy-bitsy – tiny
jeepers creepers – exclamation of surprise
mumbo-jumbo – derogatory reference to a religious or spiritual ritual
namby-pamby – feeble, weak
nitty gritty – the facts
okey-dokey – OK
super-duper – very pleasing
willy-nilly – whether it’s wanted or not

Vowel change reduplicatives:

chit-chat – gossipy talk
clip clop – sound of a horse’s hooves
criss-cross – a pattern of lines that cross each other
dilly-dally – to loiter
ding-dong – the sound of a bell
flim-flam – foolishness
flip-flop – this has several meanings, including a backward somersaut and a sandal with a piece between the toes
hip-hop – type of music
knick-knack – trinket
mish-mash – a confused mixture
ping pong – table tennis
pitter-patter – a light, tapping sound
riff-raff – rabble; people who are worthless
riprap – broken stones on water used to protect riverbanks
see-saw – a piece of wood with a central balance which allows it to move up and down
shilly-shally – to hesitate
tick tock – sound of a clock
tittle-tattle – chat, gossip
zigzag – sharp turns in alterating directions

Phew! That took some doing. The definitions are from the Collins English Dictionary, and I’ve tried to stick to the most common ones. Enjoy1

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

14 thoughts on “Reduplicatives And Their Meanings”

  1. Hip-hip hooray! You did an excellent job, Sharon.
    Do reduplicatives occur in other languages, or are they most often an English language device?

  2. Thanks. I forgot how much fun English could be! Here are a few more that come to mind:

    Wishy-washy — ambivalent, can’t make a definite decision: I feel so wishy-washy about the candidates.

    Phoney baloney — a person who comes across as “fake”: What a phoney baloney she turned out to be.

    Lah-di-dah– snobbish: He acts so lah-di-dah, now that he owns a hybrid car.

    Pooh-pooh — to discount something, usually without due consideration: She pooh-poohed by great idea before I’d even finished telling her.

  3. Just a thought…

    See-saw and flip-flop can mean the same thing when used in the sense of someone who keeps changing his/her mind on some issue.


  4. Yes Deborah … reduplicatives are quite common in Bahasa Malaysia. For instance, membeli is the word for a purchase, whereas membeli-belah means to do one’s shopping.

    The “-belah” is only there to make it sound like more fun;-)

    But now that I think of it, any noun can be duplicated because there is no plural in the Malay language. A noun has to be repeated. “Bas” means bus, but you have to say “bas-bas” to make buses.


  5. Wouldn’t a more common definition of “mumbo-jumbo” be – unintelligible speech? E.g., the kind usually spoken by politicians 😉


  6. @ Jaguar: You’re welcome.

    @ Nancy: so it does; thanks for the addition

    @ Deborah: I believe they occur in other languages. I’m sure I’ve heard a few in French and Spanish: I’ll have to defer to other experts about other languages.

    @ Daniel S: The meaning I’ve given is the original one, but it does also have that sense.

    @marketeer: thanks for the additions

    @ Paul: yes, that’s another sense.

    @Rodney: thanks for the addition

  7. This made a perfect Friday assignment for my 8th grade language arts classes. I gave them the original list then had them define as many as possible during the 45 minutes period.


  8. I always understood willy-nilly to mean haphazard.

    Same here. The definition given brings more to mind “will he or nil he” which is completely different.

  9. Would the antelope-like and onomatopoetically named dik-dik qualify as another rhyming reduplicative?

    How about hugger-mugger, which conveys either secrecy/keeping something secret, or confusion?

  10. Japanese has many reduplicatives, which they call ‘kasane-kotoba’ or ‘stacked-up-words.’ Many of them are describe visual or auditory sensations: ‘doki-doki’ for the sound of a racing heartbeat, ‘pika-pika’ for something sparkling, etc. My favorite is ‘nyoro-nyoro’ or the back-and-forth sliding movement of a slithering snake. But there are literally thousands of them.

Leave a Comment