Words like wishy-washy or mumbo-jumbo, or any words that contain two identical or similar parts (a segment, syllable, or morpheme), are called reduplicative words or tautonyms. The process of forming such words is known as reduplication. In many cases, the first word is a real word, while the second part (sometimes nonsensical) is invented to create a rhyme and to create emphasis. Most reduplicative begin as hyphenated words, and through very common usage, eventually lose the hype to become single words. Regardless of their hyphenation, they underscore the playfulness of the English language.
There are several kinds of reduplication. One type replaces a vowel while keeping the initial consonant, as in “flip-flop,” “pish-posh,” and “ping-pong.” Another type keeps the vowel but replaces that first sound, as in “namby-pamby,” “hanky-panky,” “razzle-dazzle,” and “timey-wimey,” a word used by Dr. Who fans for time-travel shenanigans. Reduplication doesn’t get any simpler than when the whole word is repeated, like when you pooh-pooh a couple’s attempt to dress matchy-matchy. My favorite type is “schm” reduplication, though some might say “Favorite, schmavorite!” All the types show that redundancy isn’t a problem in word-making. Grant Barrett, host of the public radio show “A Way with Words,” notes via e-mail that even the word “reduplication” has an unnecessary frill: “I’ve always liked the ‘re’ in ‘reduplicate.’ We’re doing it again! It’s right there in the word!”
Reduplication is used in inflections to convey a grammatical function, such as plurality, intensification, etc., and in lexical derivation to create new words. It is often used when a speaker adopts a tone more “expressive” or figurative than ordinary speech and is also often, but not exclusively, iconic in meaning. Reduplication is found in a wide range of languages and language groups, though its level of linguistic productivity varies.
Reduplication is the standard term for this phenomenon in the linguistics literature. Other terms that are occasionally used include cloning, doubling, duplication, repetition, and tautonym when it is used in biological taxonomies, such as “Bison bison”.
The origin of this usage of tautonym is uncertain, but it has been suggested that it is of relatively recent derivation.
The coinage of new words and phrases into English has been greatly enhanced by the pleasure we get from playing with words. There are numerous alliterative and rhyming idioms, which are a significant feature of the language. These aren’t restricted to poets and Cockneys; everyone uses them. We start in the nursery with choo-choos, move on in adult life to hanky-panky and end up in the nursing home having a sing-song.
The repeating of parts of words to make new forms is called reduplication. There are various categories of this: rhyming, exact and ablaut (vowel substitution). Examples, are respectively, okey-dokey, wee-wee and zig-zag. The impetus for the coining of these seems to be nothing more than the enjoyment of wordplay. The words that make up these reduplicated idioms often have little meaning in themselves and only appear as part of a pair. In other cases, one word will allude to some existing meaning and the other half of the pair is added for effect or emphasis.
New coinages have often appeared at times of national confidence, when an outgoing and playful nature is expressed in language; for example, during the 1920s, following the First World War, when many nonsense word pairs were coined – the bee’s knees, heebie-jeebies etc. That said, the introduction of such terms begin with Old English and continues today. Willy-nilly is over a thousand years old. Riff-raff dates from the 1400s and helter-skelter, arsy-versy (a form of vice-versa), and hocus-pocus all date from the 16th century. Coming up to date we have bling-bling, boob-tube and hip-hop. I’ve not yet recorded a 21st century reduplication. Bling-bling comes very close but is 20th century. ‘Bieber Fever’ is certainly 21st century, but isn’t quite a reduplication.
Reduplication is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-aye, mishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit.
Reduplicatives emerge early in our language-learning lives. As infants in the babbling phase we reduplicate syllables to utter mama, dada, nana and papa, which is where these pet names come from. Later we use moo-moo, choo-choo, wee-wee and bow-wow (or similar) to refer to familiar things. The repetition, as well as being fun, might help children develop and practise the pronunciation of sounds.
As childhood progresses, reduplicatives remain popular, popping up in children’s books, songs and rhymes. Many characters in children’s stories have reduplicated names: Humpty Dumpty, Chicken Licken and Handy Andy, to name a few.
Ding dong King Kong
Well, in fact, the Big Bad Wolf is just obeying another great linguistic law that every native English speaker knows, but doesn’t know that they know. And it’s the same reason that you’ve never listened to hop-hip music.
You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig, or ‘cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one.
All four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip. Every second your watch (or the grandfather clock in the hall makes the same sound) but we say tick-tock, never tock-tick. You will never eat a Kat Kit bar. The bells in Frère Jaques will forever chime ‘ding dang dong’.
Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.
Why this should be is a subject of endless debate among linguists, it might be to do with the movement of your tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. It doesn’t matter. It’s the law, and, as with the adjectives, you knew it even if you didn’t know you knew it. And the law is so important that you just can’t have a Bad Big Wolf.
In all these ablaut reduplication word pairs, the key vowels appear in a specific order: either i before a, or i before o.
In linguistic terms, you could say that a high vowel comes before a low vowel. The i sound is considered a high vowel because of the location of the tongue relative to the mouth in American speech. The a and o sounds are low vowels.
See-saw doesn’t use the letter i, but the high-vowel-before-low-vowel pattern still applies.
As to why this I-A-O pattern has such a firm hold in our linguistic history, nobody can say. Forsyth calls it a topic of “endless debate” among linguists that may originate in the arcane movements of the human tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. Whatever the case, the world’s English speakers are on-board, and you will never catch Lucy accusing Charlie Brown of being washy-wishy.