Apr 23, 2010


Adding 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 our language. 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 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. Is there anything other than a spider that is eency-weency? Is there anything other than a dance that is hokey-pokey?

During the 1920s, following the First World War, when many nonsense word pairs were coined, such as  the bee's knees, heebie-jeebies etc. 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. Now we have bling-bling, boob-tube and hip-hop. Just thought I would razzle-dazzle you with this one.