One of the alluring elements of any language is the music of it, & one of the ways we infuse a language with music is the repetition or near-repetition of sounds. Linguists call these childish-sounding gems reduplications. Here are a few:
A reduplication of the word roll came to be in 1820 — roly-poly.
In 1940, a reduplication of the word super was born -- super-duper.
Since 1741 those who move slowly have dilly-dallied.
Since 1610 those who lie can be said to fib. Though fib isn’t a reduplication, it was born of the reduplication fibble-fable, a term of the 1500s meant to disparage the telling of fables.
Zigzag (or zig-zag) came to us in 1712. It’s likely this term grew from the German reduplication zickzack, a play on the word zacke, which meant tooth or prong.
Since the 1530s, when someone goes about doing something in a backward fashion, that person’s actions can be labeled arsy-versy, a reduplication of the somewhat titillating word, arse. Some Linguists suggest this term might also have been influenced by the word reverse.
And the reduplication ticky-tacky, brainchild of folksinger Malvina Reynolds, made its debut in 1962 to label the reiterating rows of tacky homes being built at the time. Listen to her song, “Little Boxes,” here.
First meaning feeble or poor in quality, & later meaning vacillating, the term wishy-washy has been with us since the 1690s.
And though the term willy-nilly sounds like a reduplication, it's not. It was born in the 1600s of the phrase will he, nill he, which meant with or without the will of the person in question. Willy-nilly doesn’t qualify as a reduplication because it’s not simply a near-repeated sound. Its roots clearly go back to two words that simply happen to rhyme. Proof that hardworking etymologists are exacting & don’t go about things willy-nilly.
If you're interested in more examples of reduplication, check out this post, or this one.
Please leave any comments on all this reduplication in the comment section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & Collins Dictionary.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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