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 am splitting it up for each category. I have already covered rhyming reduplication, that post found here: Vocabulary Rocks! Reduplication Rhyming Words
Ablaut Reduplications are yet to come. For today, here a few EXACT reduplications.
To begin, it is important to note that the majority of exact reduplication words fall into what is best described as baby words or baby talk. Parents everywhere in the world, in every language, speak to their children in this way. One reason is that for all infants, early babbling repeats the same syllable over and over, such as in gagagaga and dadadada. Parents consciously and unconsciously believe they are making it easier for the child to comprehend and learn if they imitate the baby’s sounds. These words have a simple, friendly rhythmic quality that rolls off the tongue and is pleasing to the infant’s young ears.
These words are clearly exact reduplications, yet one rarely uses them in any other setting than with a very young child. Instinctively we know that while necessary and rather cute with our own children, no one wants to hear such words amongst adult conversation!
This little reduplicated term has its origins in the South China Sea, as a Pidgin English version of the Cantonese Chinese term k’wâi-k’wâi. The earliest known citation of chop-chop in print is from the English language newspaper The Canton Register that was printed in Canton in the early 19th century, the entry dated May 13, 1834:
“We have also… ‘chop-chop hurry’.”
The next printed use of chop-chop is in The Chinese Repository, a monthly journal which was produced by and for American missionaries in Canton. In January 1836 it contained an article headed ‘Jargon Spoken in Canton’, which included:
“Chop-chop – pidgin Cantonese phrase for ‘Hurry up!'”
The meaning is: “Ostentatious, over-the-top jewelry or dress. Often used to demonstrate the wearer’s wealth.”
This term came to prominence right at the end of the 20th century, when the word bling became a central feature of the Gangsta rap hip hop scene in the USA. The first use of the reduplication in print was by rap artist B.G. (a.k.a. ‘Baby Gangsta’, whose real name is Christopher Dorsey) as a song title and lyrics on the 1999 album Chopper City In The Ghetto:
Booted up, diamond up
Golds be shinin’ up, all them diamonds be blindin’ up
Everytime I come around yo’ city
Pinky ring worth about 50
Everytime I buy a new ride
Lorenzos on Yokahama tires
Bling-Bling was also used in Jamaica about the same time, although it isn’t clear if there was a connection to the album by B.G. On December 18, 1999, a newspaper from Kingston, Jamaica called The Gleaner printed a story about the Christmas decoration on a house on Portmore Parkway. Spelled out in colored lights on the house was:
“It’s a Bling-Bling Christmas to the Y2K.”
The popular cheer most familiar as a cheerleading cry is an offshoot of hurrah or hurra, which dates to the 1680s as a battle-cry of Prussian soldiers that was picked up by English soldiers. Hurrah, in turn, is an alteration of huzza, dating to the 1570s, originally a sailor’s shout of exaltation, encouragement, or applause. Other words with generally the same intent as a cry of exultation or joy include hooray, hurray, hurroo, and hoorah.
From this root, the singular rah evolved as a cheer around 1870, a shortening of hurrah. Credit for rah rah is given to USA universities, several of which claim the reduplication as an enthusiastic chant for their sport’s teams.
The first public mention of the still-to-this-day standard Rah! Rah! yell from Harvard appeared in August 1869 when the London Times, in its account of the Harvard-Oxford race of that year, speaks of the curious “Rah! Rah! Rah!” of the American college men.
In 1898, the University of Wisconsin coined the chant “U-Rah-Rah!” as “…a variation of cheers heard on dozens of campuses at the time, the most famous being Princeton’s ‘locomotive’.” The next year the cheer appeared in the University’s student manual. By the early 1900s, rah rah was well established with college sports teams and cheerleaders.
As an aside: While it may seem logical to assume the US Marine Corp yell Oorah! is related, according to sources, it isn’t. Fact is, the Marine shout did not appear until after 1950, and didn’t become common until the 1980s. Its origins are a closely guarded secret within the ranks, or maybe it just started popping up and no one really knows for sure why or who! If interested, the official Marine website has some info HERE.
This one is interesting in that it has a couple of meanings, although one is more commonly used today.
Evolving from goodie, as in “something tasty” dating to 1745, goody goody arose first as an exclamation of pleasure and delight. In the early American ballad opera, The Disappointment, circa 1760:
“Oh! goodee, goodee, oh! we shall see presently.”
Today, this meaning is still used, however primarily with the singular goodie or goody rather than the reduplication. Typically when using goody-goody, the meaning is somewhat negative, as in “a person who is self-righteously, affectedly, or cloyingly good” or “a smugly virtuous or sanctimonious person.” This is a bit unfortunate as the original meaning was much more positive.
Derived from the old-fashioned goodwife, meaning “a matron, mistress of a household,” it was a term of civility applied to a married woman in humble life who was “sentimentally proper” and virtuous. It is from this meaning that the related term “Goody Two-Shoes” was used in a nursery tale called The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, published in 1765 by John Newbery. This was not the first use of the term “Goody Two-Shoes” as other poems had included it dating as far back as 1670. To this day, a “goody two-shoes” is typically used to describe someone who acts in an honest way whenever possible, who regularly does what is considered right. While this might be said in a sneering way, generally nothing too insulting is implied.
From as early as the mid-1500s, the singular goody indicated respect for a married or unmarried virtuous woman of modest means. Gradually, it became a depreciative term for a lower-class woman or a woman with lower-class tastes and manners. This is from where the negative connotations and meaning came about, although goody-goody as a slur was not common until the 1870s.
This reduplication is often used with three blahs in a row, adding additional emphasis to the meaning, which is: “a negative commentary on the quality of what someone is saying; the speaker is spouting nonsense, drivel, or words or information that is meaningless, boring, or has been said many times before; a signal that the listener does not respect what the speaker is saying and has ceased to listen.”
The noun blah, means “idle, meaningless talk” and dates to 1918. Blah as an adjective means “bland, dull” perhaps influenced by French blasé meaning “bored, indifferent.”
As an idiom blah blah came into common use in the United States around the 1920s, and probably evolved from a popular phrase from the 1800s: blab, blab, blab, which had the same definition. Interestingly, that term may have its roots in an ancient Greek expression, bar bar bar, which describes someone’s words as meaningless noise. Basically, as an expression or idiom, blah blah has been around for a very long time, at least in some form!
The Oxford English Dictionary credits the first documented use of blah to American journalist Howard Vincent O’Brien, in his 1918 memoir Wine, Women & War —
“[He] pulled old blah about ‘service’…”
Then three years later, the US magazine Collier’s: The National Weekly used blah blah for the first time in print —
“Then a special announcer begin a long debate with himself which was mostly blah blah.”
The meaning is: “A disparaging response, indicating that something previously said was predictable, repetitive, or tedious.” This phrase emerged during or just after WWII, so is a bit newer than blah blah, yet the two have essentially the same meaning and usage. Also similar to blah blah, yada yada was preceded by various alternative forms — “yatata, yatata” and “yaddega, yaddega” for two examples. The 1947 American musical Allegro by Rodgers and Hammerstein contains a song called “Yatata, Yatata, Yatata,” about cocktail party chatter. In the August 1948 edition of the Long Beach Independent, an advertisement included:
“Yatata … yatata … the talk is all about Chatterbox, Knox’s own little Tomboy Cap with the young, young come-on look!”
All these variations are related to common words used for incessant talk, such as jabber, chatter, blather, and yatter. Yet when did the variation we are most familiar with today become the standard?
Famed comedian Lenny Bruce had a bit called “Father Flotsky’s Triumph” in his standup routine, in which the phrase “yadda yadda” was used. In 1961, Bruce included the bit as the closing track on his album “Lenny Bruce – American” and the success of the album and Bruce’s fame instantly popularized the phrase.
Whatever waning yada yada may have seen over the subsequent three decades, it was immediately and permanently renewed thanks to the US television show Seinfeld. On April 24, 1997, during Season 8 of Seinfeld, Episode 19 — entitled “The Yada Yada” — aired. The entire episode centered around the duplicative yada yada, and thereafter it became a catchphrase on the show.
Kudos to great comedians for taking chances and providing us with excellent cultural uniqueness!
Those are the most familiar exact reduplications in English we hear today.
Are there any others can you think of?
Etymology sources listed on the LINKS page.