Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

By the Light of the Moonmoon: The Joy of Reduplication

Even an astronomical ignoramus knows a few facts when it comes to orbital matters. Planets orbit suns. Moons orbit planets. And, as discussed in a New Scientist article with the headline of the year: “Moons can have moons and they are called moonmoons.”

This lexical lunacy is a flimsy excuse for me to write about my favorite type of word: the reduplication. From ack-ack to zip-zap, reduplicative words are silly, childish, catchy, animalistic, nonsensical, and awesome. They can make even the most jaded word nerd say, “Hubba-hubba!”

There are several types of reduplication in English. Take mumbo-jumbo. That type repeats the initial word with one change: the initial consonant. Other examples include bow-wow, helter-skelter, herky-jerky, holy moly, okie-dokie, namby-pamby, nitty-gritty, super-duper, teensy-weensy, willy-nilly, and a word I first learned from Bloom County maestro Berkeley Breathed, higgledy-piggledy. In those glorious cartoons, something was always going higgledy-piggledy, and Opus the penguin often noticed. The Oxford English Dictionary also records the amazing variation higgledy-piggledyness, which has been in print since the mid-1800s.

Another type of reduplication is seen in fiddle-faddle, which keeps the initial consonant but replaces the vowel, which flip-flops. This type includes chit-chat, clitter-clatter, clip-clop, criss-cross, dilly-dally, drip-drop, gibble-gabble, hip-hop, jingle-jangle, teeter-totter, twiddle-twaddle, twingle-twangle, and whim-wham. What a mish-mash of fun words.

We can thank the glorious Yiddish language for schm- reduplication. Inspired by words such as schmuck, schmo, and schmendrick, this type of word formation has a Pig Latin-type power to alter and dismiss any word. For example, if you were tired of the universe, you could say, universe-schmuniverse — or universe, schmuniverse, depending on your punctuation preference. When my dad was entranced with the recent Major League Baseball playoffs, I would have to say baseball, schmaseball. But I question the soul and intelligence of anyone, of any age, who would dare say Johnny Cash, Schmonny Schmash.

Some reduplication is caveman-level basic, and it’s the type seen in moonmoon. In words such as bye-bye, haha, night-night, no-no, nyah-nyah, poo-poo, rah-rah, and yum-yum, the entire word is repeated. Plenty of animal noises fit this pattern, such as woof-woof, quack-quack, and cheep-cheep. Other words — like cock-a-doodle-doo — have a type of partial reduplication. Instead of taking a look, you can take a looky-loo — perhaps to see if there’s a brouhaha or something to make you say ooh-la-la.

A reduplicative word could mean anything, but there are trends. Many have a noisy meaning, from the murmur of chit-chat and prattle-prattle to the pitter-patter of little feet or pit-a-pat of a heart. Often, these words indicate some sort racket, such as a clitter-clatter or jingle-jangle. I wrote a whole book about bunkum, a topic full of reduplicative terms, probably because it makes sense for words for nonsense to sound like a bunch of nonsense. No one’s going to mistake mumbo-jumbo, jibber-jabber, or claptrap for elevated discourse.

As for moonmoon, like any new term or wacky story, it attracted attention aplenty online and in social media. As a CNET headline put it, “No one's ever seen a moonmoon, but the internet already loves it.”

“No one's ever seen a moonmoon, but the internet already loves it.”

The inquisitive @DeathWishCoffee said, “Science has discovered that a moon can also have its own moon, and it is called a moonmoon. So if I give my coffee its own coffee, does that make it a coffeecoffee?” Woodchuck enthusiast @lauren__ovee wrote, “How much moon could a moonmoon moon if a moonmoon could moon moon.” Comic book artist @McKelvie made an allusion to a certain arachnid superhero: “Moonmoon was just a regular moon until they were bitten by a radioactive moon and gained the proportionate strength and speed of a moon.” Many found the term to be lovey-dovey, including @arabellesicardi: “moonmoon is now my favorite term of endearment, surpassing dumpling and handsome frond.”

Not everyone was so amused or romantic. For example, @daniellevalore pooh-poohed the moonmoon party: “There are at least 17 poets who have been waiting their whole lives for the chance to name the moon of a moon and then scientists just mess around and call it a moonmoon. This is exactly why STEM fields need more arts and humanities education.”

In fact, moonmoon already has plenty of synonyms, and not just submoon and second-order moon, which astronomers are also considering. The collective creativity of the internet has come up with alternatives such as binary moon, grandmoon, metamoon, mini-moon, moonette, moonito, moonlet, nested moon, and secondary moon. So far, neither NASA nor the moon god Khonsu has responded to my suggestion: teacup moon.

It remains to be seen whether moonmoon will become the standard name for a moon’s moon, but for the love Buzz Aldrin, let’s hope so. A follow-up article in New Scientist says, “Some astronomers are bemoaning the use of moonmoon, suggesting it makes light of a serious field of study. But given that terms such as super-Earth, twotino and cubewano are all an accepted part of the literature, moonmoon doesn’t seem a huge departure.”

Plus, moonmoon is funfun; it’s the kind of word that can make even a jaded jerk like myself crack a smile. These days we need all the levity, lunar or otherwise, that we can get.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.