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Reduplication isn’t just jibber-jabber

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Are you frustrated by mumbo jumbo? Do you hate mish-mashes? Does it stress you out when life goes higgledy-piggledy?

Even if you answered yes to all of the above, it’s hard to deny the charm of reduplicative words, a silly-sounding bunch that can be found throughout English. No matter your age, there’s something innately appealing about these rhymey words. In fact, since they are often used to dismiss things — as with “That’s mumbo jumbo!” or “Kale, schmale!” — these childish words actually make us feel mature and superior. After all, it’s always other people who produce fiddle-faddle and jibber-jabber, never us.

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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!”

Reduplicative terms appear all over English but are prominent in a few areas, like the language of childhood and anything cutesy-wutesy. These reduplicates mimic the way children learn language. The original might be “Mama!” Anyone with a baby likely uses terms such as “choo-choo,” “no-no,” and “night-night.” Infantile reduplication runs the gamut from good things (“Would you like your ba-ba?”) to bad things (“Do you have a boo-boo?”). Just about all rugrats read about Humpty Dumpty, and “gee-gee” is a child’s word for a horse from the 1800s. I probably don’t need to mention the prominence of “pee-pee” and “poo-poo” in a child’s vocabulary and a parent’s life. Once in school, it’s not long before kids learn to taunt each other with “Nyah nyah!” or the double reduplication “Nanny nanny boo boo!”

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The language of BS and nonsense is also full of reduplicates — maybe because the words themselves sound so nonsensical. The most famous is probably “mumbo jumbo,” which originally referred to superstitious nonsense back in the 1700s. These days, it tends to refer to gobbledygook (not quite a reduplicative, but almost). “Fiddle-faddle” and “jibber-jabber” are also common, the latter thanks to Mr. T. There are also rarer nonsense-describing terms such as “ackamarackus,” “flubdub,” “twittle-twattle,” and “skimble-skamble,” which was used by Shakespeare. When “baloney” starting referring to bunk and rubbish around 1920, it wasn’t long before the reduplicative term “phony baloney” popped up. That led to “phonus balonus,” a silly Latin-sounding variation.

“Phony baloney” sounds like twice the baloney, and even reduplicative terms that are half nonsense create a kind of emphasis. In an e-mail interview, Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, said, “The first thing that comes to mind when talking about reduplicatives is the force behind them. They seem very childish, but the motivation behind creating and using them can be really nuanced. Take ‘dilly-dally,’ for example. Barking ‘Quit dallying and get in here’ gets the point across, but saying ‘Quit dilly-dallying and get in here’ adds an extra dash of contempt to your command. You’re highlighting the littleness of the action — it’s so unimportant that you can make a childlike rhyme out of it. That’s why Antonin Scalia’s use of ‘argle-bargle’ in the United States v. Windsor dissent was so withering: ‘legalistic argle-bargle’ makes the deliberations of the Court seem like fruitless faffing.”

Jonathon Green — editor of the largest English language slang dictionary in the world, “Green’s Dictionary of Slang” — sees “schm” reduplication as quite different: “I think, rightly or wrongly, that synergy-schmynergy etc. is another ballgame. Rather than intensify by the reduplication, the ‘Yiddish’ addition actually undermines [or] mocks the first part.” This evolved from the many Yiddish words that depreciate someone or something, like “schmuck,” “schmo,” “schmutz,” and “schmaltz.” The first known example is from Isak Goller’s 1929 novel “The Five Books of Mr. Moses,” which contains the line “Crisis, schmisis!” “Schm” reduplication is one of the most versatile processes in English: You can do it to just about any word, from “Pumpkin spice, schmumpkin schmice!” to “Universe, smchmuniverse!”

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Despite these patterns, you can find reduplicative words in just about every corner of English. When a football player is called for a foul that seems like a minor offense, announcers call it ticky-tack. Paul Rudd inspired a new slang term in 2009’s “I Love You, Man” when he said “totes magotes.” Any bar that plays classic rock will eventually get around to Lynyrd Skynyrd and perhaps something from the Rolling Stones’ “Get Your Ya-yas Out.” We all get the heebie-jeebies or whim-whams sometimes. Even the most serious-minded businessperson will occasionally set aside talk of deliverables and verticals in favor of getting down to the nitty-gritty. Reduplication is perfect for representing noises, including the boom-boom of an explosion, the chirp-chirp of a bird, the blah blah blah of a bore, and the pitter-patter of little feet.

But aside from their usefulness, reduplicatives are popular for a simple reason mentioned by Grant Barrett: “Reduplication is fun. And if it also rhymes and alliterates, then that’s like winning the Triple Crown. Only it smells less like horse.”

But the best-ever endorsement of reduplication came in Isaac Goldberg 1938 book “The Wonder of Words”: “In the dawn of language, the bow-wows and the pooh-poohs and even the ding-dongs must have served man well.” In other words, such lexical hocus-pocus is totally okey-dokey.

Mark Peters (@wordlust) is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press.
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