A handy-dandy guide to reduplicative words

By Curtis Honeycutt

I promise I’m not trying to get this song stuck in your head, but its lyrics illustrate the language term I want to discuss. And I promise I wouldn’t bring it up if this 1960 hit pop song’s b-side didn’t also illustrate the point. However, it’s impossible not to get this earworm stuck in your head if I just write, “It was an itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie yellow polka dot bikini.” Sorry.

What is it about “itsy-bitsy” and “teenie-weenie”? Not only that, but what was it about singer Brian Hyland’s b-side of the single entitled “Don’t Dilly Dally, Sally”? In the case of the b-side track, “dilly dally” is yet another “reduplicative,” or “ricochet word.”

A reduplicative word is a word that is composed of two similar or identical parts. Sometimes the words rhyme, as in “razzle-dazzle,” but that isn’t a requirement. And, no, not all reduplicative words are hyphenated. I think reduplicative words are fun, so let’s learn some more – I promise it won’t be a bunch of flim-flam or mumbo-jumbo.

Many reduplicative words have to do with a state of chaos, their repetitive nature intensifying a sense of insanity in your ears. If you do things all “higgledy-piggledy” or “willy-nilly” that means you approach daily tasks in a disorderly manner. Some might even say you’re all “helter-skelter.” A disorganized, irresponsible person might be called “harum-scarum.” If you hear a wild commotion outside, you might either say, “What’s all that hubbub?” or “What’s the hullaballoo?” Either way, you’d be describing a noisy disturbance.

Other reduplicative words fall into a broad category of personal slights – the kind of words you’d hear second-graders calling each other at recess. I’ve been called “artsy-fartsy” more times than I can count, but I’m not “fancy-schmancy,” nor am I “hoity-toity.” A person who is considered too old-fashioned might be called a “fuddy-duddy” or a “goody-goody.”

When it comes to reduplicative words with identically duplicated stems, I mostly think of “baby’s first words”: mama, dada, night night, boo-boo, go bye-bye, that’s a no-no, etc. However, others aren’t just for babies. For instance, I like my clothes to look coordinated, but I don’t want to be all matchy-matchy; that would be cray-cray. Am I right or am I right?

I promise I’m not wishy-washy, but I only have so many words to describe this hodgepodge mishmash of the English language. Even if you think this column is too loosey-goosey, I am of the opinion that it is, in fact, super-duper.

—Curtis Honeycutt is an award-winning syndicated humor columnist. Connect with him on Twitter (@curtishoneycutt) or at curtishoneycutt.com.