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Query Details

Query Subject:   Word Formation
Author:   Harold F Schiffman
Submitter Email:  click here to access email

Linguistic LingField(s):  Morphology

Query:   I have a question about a word-formation process in English that has
parallels in other languages, but has not (to my knowledge) been discussed
much, or even *named*.

I'm referring to the process of partial reduplication of syllables,
sometimes rhyming, other times partial rhymes or with the pattern
CV1C-CV2C, i.e. ''zig-zag'', ''hip-hop'', etc. These forms are often used as
diminutives (''teeny-tiny'', ''teeny-weeny'', ''eensy-beensy''), pejoratively
(willy-nilly, shilly-shally, dilly-dally, fancy-shmancy), ironically,
dismissively (artsy-craftsy, artsy-fartsy), or perhaps even
affectionately. This parallels their use/meaning in other languages to
some extent, though reduplication in (say) Indonesian, has other

1. One kind is fairly old, and seems more like reduplication, or partial
reduplication. This is the sort like ''helter-skelter'', ''hodge-podge''
where there is either little intrinsic (lexical or referential) meaning
(what is a helter? a skelter?) or one element has meaning but the other is
not so clear (teeny-weeny?). There are also onomatopoeic pairs like
tick-tock, ding-dong, pitter-patter, and non-onomatopoeic terms like
peg-leg, ticky-tacky, etc. My dictionary says that ''shilly-shally'' is
based on ''shall-he'' plus reduplicative ''shilly''; and that ''willy-nilly''
comes from ''will he'' (or won't he?).

2. Another kind I see as quite productive, and used a lot in brand names
or in what look like simplifications of more complicated terms. Thus:

Zany-brainy, Smarte-cart, dust-buster [ghost-buster, fuzz-buster, based
originally on 19th century trust-buster], Mod-Squad, and non-brand names
like zoot-suit, motor-voter, queen of mean, snail-mail, schlemiel-appeal,
boob-tube, airy-fairy, arts-craftsy [also artsy-fartsy].
Four-on-the-floor, or 4x4 [four by four] for 4-wheel drive vehicles...,
ficto-facto, sci-fi, vi-spy (Virus-Spy, a virus detector, based on ''I spy''
or ?), mall-crawl (cf. ''pub crawl''), poop-scoop.

In the ''Queen of Mean'' type we have rhyming with a preposition in between;
there are also types like ass-gaskets, dust-buster, which have other

The process in English is not ''regular'' as it is in, e.g. Yiddish, where
we get the formula C(etc.)-shm(etc.) as in ''fancy-shmancy''. (And of course
the Yiddish pattern is borrowed into English, but it's not the only way to
do this.) The languages of India have similar patterns, e.g. the
Dravidian languages have the pattern CV(etc.) ki(etc.) as in Tamil ''puli
kili'' and the meaning is ''X and things like it'' (puli-kili ''tigers and
similar animals'' kaappi-kiippi ''coffee and other beverages'' pooyTTu-kiiTTu
''going and other activities'') The meaning in Dravidian is sometimes
pejorative/ironic/sarcastic, but not necessarily. In Dravidian lgs. at
least one can even reduplicate verbs (Tamil [pooyTTu-kiiTTu] ''going and
other activities'', ''(too much) coming and going'' (hustling and bustling
around). This is pervasive in S. Asia and there is an English name for it,
''Hobson-Jobson'' (though Hobson-Jobson was a term to deprecate other
peculiarities of S. Asian English).

There have been some messages lately about how rhyme helps in memory;
these terms are more certainly more memorable than non-rhyming types, I'll

1. My first question is, does anyone know of research on this subject,
including perhaps even a *dictionary/lexicon* of various forms? I see
this as a productive process in English that gets little documentation. I
am constantly saving examples I find used in the media, on TV, etc. but
don't appear in any dictionary.

2. Second question is what do we call this kind of word-formation process
in English? Partial reduplication? Rhyming pairs/phrases? Usually the
reduplication is only partial, though we do get a few complete
reduplications, e.g. ''dumb-dumb'', ''dodo'' ''din-din'' (dinner) Some of this
may be ''baby-talk'' or pseudo-baby talk (wa-wa for 'water') which spills
over into diminutives and or affectionate usages, e.g. for nicknames
(Baba, Lulu, etc.)

3. Although some of these appear in dictionaries (''helter-skelter'' etc.)
many don't, so I am thinking of compiling a lexicon of these, which I may
ask people to contribute to via the Web. If I elicit any interest in
this, I'll send another message.

Hal Schiffman

Harold F. Schiffman
Academic Director
Henry R. Luce Professor of Language Learning Penn Language Center
Dept. of South Asia Regional Studies 715-16 Williams Hall
820 Williams Hall, Box 6305 Box 6305

University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone: (215) 898-5825 (215) 898-6039
Fax: (215) 573-2138 Fax (215) 573-2139

LL Issue: 10.1368
Date posted: 17-Sep-1999


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