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.”
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.