The Nitty-Gritty About Reduplication

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Reduplication, a type of vocabulary variation that allows writers and speakers of English to indulge in the rich potential for wordplay the language so often provides, refers to any of three types of repetitive extension of sounds. (Many other languages also feature reduplication, but this post focuses exclusively on the English tongue.)

Rhyming Reduplication

When we talk about doing the hokey-pokey, or refer to a razzle-dazzle spectacle or a namby-pamby attitude, we’re employing rhyming reduplication, which usually serves to emphasize with a playful near duplication of a meaningful word (fuzzy-wuzzy, itsy-bitsy), though sometimes both words have meaning and the rhyming is a fringe benefit that makes the term catchier (“chick flick”).

Many reduplicatives are pairings of nonsense words (fuddy-duddy, hanky-panky), and their origin is obscure, but others with seemingly meaningless elements have at least a likely etymology: Hurly-burly may stem from the kinetic term hurl, and willy-nilly goes back several centuries to any one of several possible expressions such as “Will he, nill he” (“Whether he will or he won’t”).

Exact Reduplication

A similar type of construction stems from efforts by adults to help children learn by repetition — hence baby talk like bye-bye and choo-choo. But some exact reduplication is used disparagingly in grown-up contexts: Two popular exact reduplicatives, blah-blah and “yada yada” (spelled and repeated variously and perhaps stemming from the earlier British English slang term yatter-yatter) mock dull or meaningless speech.

Ablaut Reduplication

A third form, named for the word for change of vowel sounds, is exemplified by the terms chitchat and dillydally, each of which has, unlike most rhyming reduplicatives, the substantial word in the second position rather than the first. Others, like crisscross and zigzag, more transparently demonstrate that most ablaut reduplications refer to action, especially reciprocated movements or behaviors.

Note that in these examples, and in most other ablaut reduplicatives, the first vowel is always an i, produced by making a close, or high sound (meaning it is achieved by high placement of the tongue) and that the second vowel is always low.

Other Reduplicative Forms

New reduplicative vocabulary is slow to emerge. Exceptions include occasional slang terms (“boob tube,” hip-hop) or ad hoc coinages constructed like fancy-schmancy. (The latter type actually has a name: shm-reduplication.) Speaking of fancy-schmancy, there’s also a formal name (contrastive focus reduplication) for exact reduplication employed to clarify the relationship between a variation of an archetypal meaning and the archetypal usage itself, as in “When you say ‘Dude, that’s bad,’ do you mean good-bad, or bad-bad?”

Uses of Reduplication

Reduplicatives are handy little items for injecting a note of whimsy or a sharp edge into fiction or nonfiction alike. They can convey humorous or sarcastic understatement (“It’s just another case of high-finance hocus-pocus,” “The wish-washy White House flip-flops again”) or serve to mock or belittle a target (“The socialite’s hoity-toity hubris just as she tripped was literally pride coming before a fall,” “Her eency-weency voice showcased her itsy-bitsy talent”).

They’re also useful, however, for positive or neutral language (“The pitter-patter of little feet on the hardwood floor presaged the appearance of my preschooler,” “My explosive sneeze caused the birds to erupt from the bushes and flee helter-skelter”).

But don’t use a hodgepodge or a mishmash of reduplicatives pell-mell: Make sure you know their senses and connotations, and verify whether they’re open, hyphenated, or closed compounds.

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4 thoughts on “The Nitty-Gritty About Reduplication”

  1. “When you say ‘Dude, that’s bad,’ do you mean good-bad, or bad-bad?”

    Reminds me of a film I saw years ago. Drug dealer meeting a new supplier tries the drug. Following conversion goes something like this:
    Dealer: “This shit’s shit”.
    Sidekick: “You mean it’s good shit or it’s bad shit?”
    Supplier: “It’s the shit!”.
    Dealer, “No, it’s shit! This shit’s shit shit!”

    I can’t remember what it was in, but I’m still laughing about it.

  2. Re: making sure you know what the reduplication means.

    I remember reading a real estate ad for a large property for sale on a bay. The real estate woman wrote that it had a large riff-raff. And I thought: “Well, I don’t want THAT house!”

    What she meant of course, was a large rip-rap. But I got a good laugh out of it. And then I wondered if she confused rabble and rubble, too.

  3. yes – make sure you know what it means. Sometimes, I’ve heard “hoity-toity” (i.e., uppity) confused with a term connoting the opposite – “hoi polloi” (the common or lower class). Would that be Greek reduplication?

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