The repeating of parts of words to make new forms is called reduplication. There are various categories of reduplication words:
- rhyming, for example okey-dokey
- exact, for example wee-wee
- ablaut (vowel substitution), for example zig-zag
The impetus for the coining of these seems to be nothing more than the enjoyment of wordplay. 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.
Since there are so many of these such words with surprisingly fascinating origins and meanings, I have written a blog for each category. The first two have been posted (links below) and today the 3-part series completes with Reduplication Ablaut Words.
The word means “casual small talk or gossip” and is a reduplication of chat –which is itself a diminutive form of chatter– and has been around as both a noun and a verb since the 13th century. The two-way, conversational nature of chit-chat is alluded to in the “to and fro” sound of the term.
It is recorded in two separate citations from 1710. Firstly, in Samuel Palmer’s Moral essays on some of the most curious English, Scotch, and foreign proverbs:
“‘Tis the custom of foolish people … in their chit chat to be always biting people’s reputation behind their back.”
Secondly, in a piece by Sir Richard Steele in The Tatler:
“If Ralph had Learning added to the common Chit-Chat of the Town.”
A very common word used today for “a dainty little trinket or ornament, a pleasing trifle.” Can also be spelled nick-nack or with either option without the hyphen.
Knack used alone has the meaning of a “special skill; dexterous facility” dating to the 1580s, derived from the 14th century (origin uncertain) meaning “a deception, trick, stratagem, device.” By the 16th century knack was also used to mean “an ingenious contrivance; a toy or trinket” as seen in several references, such as this 1540 piece by John Heywood—
“Needles, thread, thimble, shears, and all such knacks.”
—and Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew, 1596:
“Why ’tis a cockle or a walnut-shell, A knacke, a toy, a tricke, a babies cap: Away with it.”
The word “knick” doesn’t mean anything when used alone, so is clearly the reduplication word. Paired with knack, the reduplication was first used to mean “a petty trick or subterfuge” more in keeping with the earlier meanings of the word knack. This is seen, for example, in a 1618 work titled The loyall subject by John Fletcher—
“If you use these knick-knacks, This fast and loose.”
By the 1680s, all the prior meanings had died out, leaving only the current meaning for small trinkets, typically with no great value.
In 1989, the word was used as the title of a 4-minute computer-animated story by Pixar about a snowman named Knick who is trapped inside a snow globe and wants to escape to reach a “Sunny Miami” knick-knack that shows a pretty blonde girl in a blue two piece swimsuit. I haven’t seen it, but it sure looks adorable!
Spelled as often with the hyphen as without, flim-flam can be used as a noun or a verb. Meaning “swindle, cheat, deception” predominantly, but also can mean “nonsense; idle tale” in less common usages. It is first recorded in the 1500s, as a reduplication and is possibly related to the Old Norse word flim, which meant “mockery or lampoon,” although this cannot be verified. When used as a noun, it always refers to a con man, snake-oil salesman, or other people who make false promises to scam.
In a reverse of the usual genesis of reduplication words, flam evolved later, in the 1630s, as a single noun meaning “sham story, fabrication” and also as a verb meaning “to deceive by flattery.”
Another reduplication which can be spelled with or without the hyphen. In this case, the meaning is clear and has not changed, that being “a series of short straight lines, set at angles to one another and connected to form a continuous line, often forming a regular pattern but not necessarily so.” Zig-zag also applies to the action of moving along such a course.
The precise origin is unknown, although zig-zig appears to have entered English from Continental Europe, probably via France, The Netherlands, or Germany. In 1706, Dutch author Roelof Roukema wrote in Book of Medicine and Healers—
“eenige in de voorstad van St. Germain zig zag bewegen” which loosely translates into English as “some in the suburb of St. Germain move zig zag”
There is also a German word “zickzack” dating to around 1700, referring to castle fortifications and walls, which were often built in a zig-zag form, as well as to the pattern of military siege approaches. Another variation seen at the same time is “zic-zac” which along with “zickzack” soon morphed into zig-zag as the most common usage. The earliest use in French dates to 1712 in a gardening book referring to a pattern of steps laid in the grass. As in German, early French usages vary between “zic-zac” to “zig-zac” before settling on zig-zag.
From My Lady’s Lamentation, the 1728 prose poem by Johnathan Swift—
How proudly he talks
Of zigzags and walks
Soon thereafter, the word began to be used in a figurative sense, as in any continual change. An example is in Conversation by William Cowper from 1781—
“Though such continual zig-zags in a book, Such drunken reelings, have an awkward look.”
This reduplication verb meaning to “loiter, delay, trifle” has a clear genesis. The verb dally dates to the 13th century, but the meaning was very different than the late 14th century sense of “waste time,” which evolved to that of “to play, sport, frolic; flirt, engage in amorous exchanges” in the mid-15c. The meaning of “to linger, loiter, delay (intransitive)” for dally as seen by the 1530s is an understandable alteration.
Dilly is also a word, a noun, but not seen until the late 1800s and in no way related to the reduplication. Dilly-dally, as with most reduplications, appears to have popped into existence as fun word play, and it has always been tied to the meaning associated with dally. In a 1610 quotation from Gervase Babington in Comfortable notes vpon the bookes of Exodus and Leuiticus—
“Such dilly dally is fitter for heathens that know not God, than for sober Christians.”
In Pamela, a 1741 novel by Samuel Richardson—
“What you do, sir, do: don’t stand dilly-dallying!”
Here we have a reduplication where both words taken alone were once very common. So which one became the reduplication? Fact is, no one knows for sure!
Fiddle, as in the stringed instrument, pre-dates the now common viola or violin by a hundred years. Over time, fiddle has been relegated to colloquial usage by the more proper violin, a process encouraged by contemptuous nonsense words fiddlesticks (1620s) and fiddle-de-dee, which came about due to the second meaning of fiddle dating to the 1520s: “to act nervously, make idle movements, move the hands or something held in them in an idle, ineffective way.”
Both usages of the word fiddle have the same etymology and date to the same period, the second meaning slightly later as a descriptor of the quick hand motions employed when playing the instrument, which in turn evolved into the broader and ridiculing meaning.
Faddle is an obsolete word in the English language that meant “a nonsensical or trifling thing; to toy or play with something; to fondle; play aimlessly.”
Fiddle-Faddle arose around 1580s meaning “nonsense, trifles” or to “busy oneself with trifles; talk nonsense; waste time over trivial matters.” The dating is interesting, in that it appears after the second meaning of fiddle had morphed into those other nonsense words, but also when faddle was still a common English word. So was it a typical reduplication play on word sounds? And if so, which word started it? Or was it a mashing together of both of the words with similar meanings? Your guess is as good as mine!
As a fun aside, apparently there was, or is, a caramel covered popcorn called Fiddle Faddle! It was introduced in 1967, long after Cracker Jack was introduced in 1896. I’ve eaten a ton of Cracker Jack in my youth, but don’t recall Fiddle Faddle. Not sure why.
Fascinating, isn’t it? Of course there are many more reduplication ablaut words. Not all of them have known etymologies, some seemingly popping into existence already formed and untraceable to an origin for either word. Others are fairly obvious in how they came about. I have only so much room in one blog so can’t cover them all, but below are a few worth mentioning. I am sure y’all will think of a few more!
Mish-Mash is a confused or disorderly mixture of things, a hodgepodge. Dating to late 15th century as a reduplication of mash from the 1590s, as is the figurative sense “confused mixture, muddle” as opposed to the “anything reduced to a soft pulpy consistency” other meaning of mash.
Ding-Dong is the imitative of the sound of a bell, dating to the 1550s.
Pitter-Patter is a rhyming reduplication that has two meanings: 1) the “rapid repetition of words” from the verb patter meaning to “talk glibly or rapidly, chatter,” and 2) as “alternating light beating sounds” from a different meaning of patter or pat, “to make a quick succession of small taps.”
Riff-Raff or riffraff meaning “persons of disreputable character or low degree” is from the Old Anglo-French rif et raf “one and all, everybody; every scrap, everything,” also “sweepings, refuse, things of small value.”
Etymology sources listed on the LINKS page.