A small alcove in a remote corner of the Language Lounge is designated "Commercial Products Division." Here, ideas buzz about like blowflies on roadkill, many of them destined to enjoy lives of similar duration and stature. One such idea that emerged, some years ago, was for an exhaustive dictionary of reduplicative words in English. We duly teamed up with a colleague (see link below), drew up a book proposal, and shopped it around to esteemed publishing houses. The result: the best response we got was "thanks, but no thanks." It would be fair to say that everyone pooh-poohed the idea.

Being harmless drudges and without delusions of grandeur, the Loungeurs took this smackdown from hoity-toity reference publishers in stride, though we do think that English reduplications get an undeservedly bad press, and our experience with the book proposal only confirmed it. In an attempt to redress this, we take every opportunity in the Lounge to use a reduplication when one is available, often doing so willy-nilly. Who would settle for a words like spineless or indecisive when namby-pamby and wishy-washy are available? Why procrastinate when you can dilly-dally, or express disapproval when you can tut-tut?

To start with the 101: reduplications in English come in three basic flavors:

  1. reduplications properly so-called, that is, where an identical syllable or pair of syllables is repeated to form a word. This we call the yo-yo type.
  2. rhyming reduplications, in which parts one and two of a word differ only by having a different initial consonant sound (that is to say, in which rhyming words or syllables fuse to form a single term). This we call the claptrap type.
  3. vowel-shift reduplications (our personal favorite), in which identical consonant sounds or clusters festoon two different vowels in successive parts of a word. This we call the flimflam type.
  4. To these we like to add an unofficial category, namely

  5. reduplications in which a nondescript syllable (often schwa, with or without a consonant accompanying) intervenes in the middle of a word that otherwise fits a category above. Such words, when pronounced, still evoke the small frisson of delight that is the property of all reduplications. These we could call the folderol, bric-a-brac, or hi-de-hi type.

If you notice a pattern here other than the ones concerning vowels and consonants, it might be that none of our illustrative words would be out of place in a putdown. So unfair, we say! But it is a feature of reduplication in English that many, including pipe-smoking professors in tweed jackets, have commented on: a large proportion of English reduplications do indeed denote something trivial, nonsensical, disparaged, substandard, silly, or at the very least, more often connected with mirth than sobriety.

Where did it all begin? Probably long before folks started rounding up dated citation cards for dictionaries, for it seems as natural as the weather to settle on a reduplication to denote a familiar thing: people like them because they're easy to remember and fun to articulate. This may partly explain why, for example, "Little Italy" has 1.8 million hits on Google, while "Little Greece" has 800. It seems likely that when there are competing terms to designate a thing informally and one of them is a reduplication, it will eventually win out: think of study buddy, Bali belly, motor voter, or half-caf, all relatively recent additions to English that seem likely to endure.

Reduplication exists in some form in all human languages, even the dead ones; in some languages it has a particular semantic or grammatical role to play, such as pluralization (Malay), broadening the meaning of its root (Turkish), or the forming of frequentatives (Bantu languages). In English, however, reduplication seems to serve mainly as a handy signal to your readers or listeners that you are departing from gravity, respect, formality, and decorum, to head off in the other direction. This, we suspect, accounts for the fact that reduplications are largely regarded as the province of hoi polloi, and may also explain why our proposal for a serious redup dictionary ended up in the ha-ha.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists crisscross, mishmash, pitter-patter, and riffraff among its earliest reduplications, all from the 15th century. Mishmash and riffraff both have changed little in meaning in nearly 500 years; this suggests that the want of dignity associated with reduplications in English got an early start. Some other English reduplications with a pedigree of at least 400 years include whim-wham, flip-flap, clitter-clatter, and tittle-tattle.

What we often wonder - and we hope that readers with insights into other modern languages can illuminate - is whether this unmistakable marker of silliness associated with reduplication in English is present in other languages spoken today. There seems to be something of an argument to be made along those lines for French, which has given English some of its classic reduplications (e.g., bonbon, pell-mell, dada, and froufrou.) On the other hand, our travels in some parts of the world have revealed reduplicative place names and other words that seem to be no cause for gales of laughter. There is, for example, Tan-tan in southern Morocco, Qafqaf in Yemen, and for that matter, Provo and London, which we might call reduplications by accident. The west African garment called a boubou, while it might evoke a snort if worn in Schenectady, is not thought to have a funny name on native soil: reduplication happens! But our travels have not taken us everywhere, and we don't know if the Dutch in Old Amsterdam do it, not to mention the Finns. So we wonder.

Our partner-in-crime for the now-abandoned reduplication dictionary project was Professor Hal Schiffman at Penn, who has an interesting page about reduplications:


The Wikipedia article about reduplication is informative and has many interesting links. You might want to follow the internal link there to the short article on "Shm-reduplication," the only reliably productive form of reduplication in English (as in "Link-schmink! I've got work to do!")


Finally, if you scroll about halfway down the following page you'll find Eve Merriam's delightful poem "By the Shores of Pago Pago," a celebration of reduplication in verse:


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 1st 2007, 4:19 AM
Comment by: doug H.

Chinese words have loads of reduplication - especially informal terms related to family members - like sister (in Pinyin) 'jie-jie' or brother 'di-di'. Probably more down to colloquialisms and the fact that both terms are short, and benefit from the extra syllable.

Also - has anyone else worked out why kiwi's calls their sandals 'jandals'? South africans call them 'thongs' which is fair enough considering their design, but surely 'flip-flop' is the best onamatopaeic term ever?
Thursday March 1st 2007, 6:40 AM
Comment by: Frank Y.
I nominate "ma-ma" as the mother of all reduplications.
Thursday March 1st 2007, 7:51 AM
Comment by: Nicholas M.
In Spanish, there are reduplicative verb endings. For example, hablar can be conjugated hablaba, or even better, hablabamos. Accent goes on the second syllable. I can't think of any nouns or anything else in Spanish that use reduplication, though.
Thursday March 1st 2007, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Nils-Henrik A.
Surely "papa" should be nominated the father...
Thursday March 1st 2007, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Robert M.
I enjoy the musicality of reduplicatives. Sometimes the sing-song effect of a reduplicative will linger in my brain for hours.
Thursday March 1st 2007, 11:21 AM
Comment by: darrelyn S.
I would have bought the book. I am reading Arthur Plotnik's Spunk & Bite A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language & stlye. Reduplication does exactly that, makes writing punchier and more engaging. And it makes the writing memorable. Which is honkey-dorey in my book.
Thursday March 1st 2007, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Kate W.
You didn't mention my personal favorite: the denoting of a *generic* thing by doubling its name.
"Is Fluffy a Labradoodle?" "Nope, she's just a dog dog."
"No, I don't want a vanilla soy decaf latte, I want coffee coffee."

This is usually used to contrast the thing to some frou-frou version of itself, and to represent if not the platonic ideal, at least the classic or iconic version of it (perhaps a bit sneeringly at the fancy-schmancy version, often preceded by "just").

We don't think of this as a duplicate word -- it's not hyphenated, it doesn't work out of context, and the first word (slightly emphasized) is in the role of an adjective modifying the second, but we all use it more than you'd think. [OK, I'm making this up on the fly: I haven't had my latte yet....]
Thursday March 1st 2007, 11:59 AM
Comment by: Eileen P.
As we know there are so many different dialects spoken amongst the chinese worldwide. While reduplication is common in the chinese language, the reduplication of adjectives draws a very visual image of the word it describes yet sound almost comical in the "hokkien" dialect. Some examples:

'arm so so' - 'arm' means dark, while 'so' on its own means to move slowly. Therefore, 'arm so so' means its so dark one has to move slowly

'teng kok kok' - 'teng' meaning hard, and 'kok' to knock, thus so hard one can knock it about.

'ang kong kong' - 'ang' being red, 'kong' is to strike. So, 'ang kong kong' describes a shade of red so vivid it strikes one's visual sense.

Yes, reduplicates make the learning of language a little more easy peasy :o)
Thursday March 1st 2007, 1:01 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
My Paris born husband disagrees about bonbon being associated with levity or lack of seriousness. He maintains that it's the generic term for candy. All others, such as caramel, are super specific.

He has many others, and most seem to be associated with children. We reason that like ma ma and papa over here, those words in French represent the easiest way a child can speak. There is ton-ton, for uncle. The word for aunt doesn't fit the category.

He mentioned many more. Some are pejorative, like 'ga-ga', but two expressions I leave to you in the lounge to accept or not, and classify: faire pee pee and faire ca ca...

Rather basic, those!

Jane Bosace
Thursday March 1st 2007, 2:10 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
An interesting piece and I will be looking for further examples forever more. Ta Ta for now. MBC
Thursday March 1st 2007, 2:30 PM
Comment by: stephanie S.
Now I have to know what flip-flap means.
Thursday March 1st 2007, 4:41 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you all so much for your interesting comments! Much appreciated.

Kate Withey: Yes! This phenom of informal speech has been widely studied. Most folks call it "contrastive reduplication." Here's a page that has some examples:


We were thinking that a conversation could take place in which natural, contrastive, and shm-reduplication all appear, something like this:

Bird: Tweet-tweet!
Lulu: What sort of bird is that? It sounds like a cuckoo.
Papa: Cuckoo-schmukoo. It's a bird bird.
Lulu: Bird-schmird. It sounds like a cuckoo to me.
Bird: Tweet-tweet!
Thursday March 1st 2007, 7:55 PM
Comment by: Richard A.
How about jim-jams? As in, this place gives me the jim-jams.
Thursday March 1st 2007, 8:02 PM
Comment by: patty H.
Reduplications : Nonsensical, Disparaged, Substandard, and Silly, (or at the very least, more often connected with mirth than sobriety) is THE perfect title for the reduplication book.

Friday March 2nd 2007, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Mehdi K.
Orin has wondered(and requested readers to shed light on ) about whether the "unmistakable" silliness associate with reduplications exists in other language. The answer is a definitive yes in Persian (Farsi) language. In fact, reduplication is a very common practice in Farsi, to the extent that there are jokes about it. Reduplication is particularly common in the city of Shiraz (SW of the country). One can further (in addition to what Orin has done) categorize the reduplicative words into "True" and "Quasi" ones. In true reduplicative words, both words are actually real words and have meaning in the language in which it is use. In quasi-reduplicative words, at least one of the words does not have a meaning. Some examples of true reduplicative words in Farsi are (using the best my knowledge in phonetics): "Khert-o-Pert" (Odds and ends); "Chert-o-Pert" (Nonsense); "Charand-o-Parand" (animals and birds); "Aab-o-Taab" (much detail). Among the quasi-reduplicative words are "Zan-o-man" (wife); "Daava-Maava" (Argument); "Tala-mala" (jewelry); and "Dari-Vari" (none-sense talk).
Friday March 2nd 2007, 4:16 PM
Comment by: Rich S.
"Over-homer" - the local expression for down east Mainers {Maineacs} for somebody who is from the local area, as opposed to being "from away". You cannot describe yourself as being an "over homer", but if you are both an "over homer" and not "from away", calling someone an "over homer" is recognition of kinship. {N.B! You can both be NOT an "over homer" and NOT "from away", but there is no particular appellation for such a state of being except courteous silence.}

The term derives from the response to the question "Where are you going" - "Gone over to home".

Having come to understand the derivation and meaning, I was glad to be able to claim that I was "from away", even when I was headed "over home".

Which leads to a more nuanced form of language disintegration downeast involving transposed "r"'s "d"'s and "t"'s.

Whenever someone wanted to remind poor "Paula Carter" where she was from, her name transformed to "Parlar Cahduh". Is that a "yo-yo", a "claptrap" or just an ignorant accident? Who knows? I'm not only from away I am away. Go figer.
Saturday March 3rd 2007, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Penelope T.
Australian aboriginals, one of the oldest living civilizations/cultures also use reduplication. Examples include place names such as Wagga Wagga, and ceremonial tools such as the nulla nulla.
Saturday March 3rd 2007, 11:45 PM
Comment by: gopal K.
how about 'he-he' for laughter and a macho male?
Sunday March 4th 2007, 10:11 PM
Comment by: Norman A.
Did you list "Pago Paago" ? Dada? go go? ha ha? jiu jitsu? ooh la la? no no? so so? tut tut? yo yo?
Monday March 5th 2007, 5:01 AM
Comment by: ruchika C.
In hindi - or more specifically, in the language of punjabis who speak their own version of hindi- reduplications are amusingly common, mainly to denote "etcetera". These are a great source of hilarity for other hindi speakers. So a punjabi will say khaana- waana (food etc) or pyaar-vyaar (love etc). This quirk exists even with English insertions into a sentence- so you could get into a car-shaar and go shopping-vopping for a phone-wone!!
Monday March 5th 2007, 8:14 PM
Comment by: Stuart G.
Indeed Australian aborigines did reduplication to name many places. Wagga Wagga, for example means places of many crows, but as Spike Miligan once asked, which Wagga means crows and which means many? For some time before his death he lived north of Sydney, in a small town called Woy Woy (so good they named it twice), but in this case he thought the reduplication was merely a service to aid drunks who arrived by train.

Jim jams in Australia are pajamas, and then there's easy peasy and sometimes easypeasy japanese, which is silly 'cause it aint!
Tuesday March 6th 2007, 5:50 PM
Comment by: Ray S.
Much of the reduplication in Mandarin Chinese comes about because of the conciseness of the language (the average Chinese "word" has fewer syllables than its equivalent in English) and the small number of distinct syllables in Chinese. For example, the sound "shr" (fourth tone) is the sound for at least 10 common characters with very different meanings, including to be, thing, test, city or market, and suitable. And that's just one tone. So to avoid confusion, Chinese speakers must add information, and one way is by reduplication.
Thursday March 15th 2007, 1:54 PM
Comment by: Scott P.
I nominate Japanese as the mother of all reduplication languages. Usually used as adverbs, e.g. "suya suya nete iru" (sleeping soundly), "gatsu gatsu tabete iru" (eating voraciously), etc. There are amazingly subtle variations -- tsuru tsuru:
smooth; tsuya tsuya: glossy. Words for soft chewing, hard chewing and on and on. It could take a lifetime of study to become "pera pera" (fluent) in Japanese reduplication.
Friday April 27th 2007, 3:27 PM
Comment by: Krista C R.
Nicholas Masso's earlier comment regarding Spanish tickled my "connection" button. He referred to "hablaba", which made me wonder if it might be related to "blabber", which is very old, and said to derive from BLAEBEREN, to chatter or spill out loose talk.

Of course, considering that infants "babble" reduplicative sounds as part of learning language, it's not surprising that many reduplicative words evoke silliness or babyishness...
Monday August 20th 2007, 6:32 AM
Comment by: Kirsten D.
Not forgetting Humpty-Dumpty and his Chinese counterpart, Hun Tun, whose "fall" is amongst other things a fall into language itself.
Thursday September 27th 2007, 1:01 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
It's too irresistible. I must add to Jane Bosace's French ditties: (of course, this is Cajun French) fais do do. And it had a double meaning. It's not only what mothers say to their children as they urge rapidity in sleep, but it's also the dance that the mothers want to go do, once their enfants are in la-la-land.
Tuesday July 1st 2008, 12:20 AM
Comment by: Ikars S.
There are languages that get the effect (making light or fun of things/ideas) of reduplications by considerably different means, e.g., the insertion of some two or three letters between the root of the verb and its inflection-denoting suffix. From my familiarity with some dozen or so languages, I would gather that reduplication, esp with the use of hyphens is primarily a French (and, consequently, English) predisposition having its pinnacle in English, a non-inflected language that is easily messed with w/o a detrimental effects. Some of the perceived reduplications in languages you mention is not that but a totally different attitude of sound use, such as ome one else above said regarding Chinese. This is enjoyable, but let's not make more of a linguistic conundrum out of it than it deserves, and stay with English.

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