Reduplicatives And Their Meanings

By Sharon

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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

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14 Responses to “Reduplicatives And Their Meanings”

  • Jaguar

    Thanks, Sharon! That was super-duper!

  • Nancy

    There’s also teeter-totter which means the same as see-saw.

  • Deborah

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

  • Daniel Shirley

    I always understood willy-nilly to mean haphazard.

  • marketeer

    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.

  • Paul Russell

    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.


  • Paul Russell

    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.


  • Paul Russell

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


  • Rodney

    Then there’s the willy-willy, an Australian term for a wind vortex.

  • Sharon Hurley Hall

    @ 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

  • Jennifer S

    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.


  • Mari

    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.

  • Schizohedron

    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?

  • Kacie Landrum

    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.

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