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 shall split it up for each category. For today, here a few rhyming reduplications.
This term was used by 19th century British colonial soldiers for the members of an East African nomadic tribe – the Hadendoa. White settlers and military from other countries also later used the term to denote the indigenous dark skinned and curly haired population, but the term wasn’t considered derogatory at the time. In fact, it was such a common saying that it was used in a children’s tongue twister:
Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair,
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he?
The word also made its way into an 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem titled Barrack Room Ballad which was written in admiration of a brave Zulu warrior from the Sudan. During WWII, Australian military referred to the native Papua New Guineans who carried goods for them as the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.
Since the emergence of Charles Manson in the late 1960s, helter skelter sadly came to be associated with the race war he hoped to instigate. Even the Beatles song of the same name, from which Manson took the word, is somewhat tainted now. Such a shame for a word that has been around for over 400 years.
Helter skelter is associated with another reduplication – pell mell – in meaning “chaotic and disorderly haste; confusion.” As early as the 16th century the word crops up in English literature.
“Helter skelter, feare no colours, course him, trounce him.” ~ Thomas Nashe, Four Letters Confuted, 1592
Ever a fan of colorful language, in 1600, William Shakespeare used it in Henry IV, Part 2:
“Helter skelter, haue I rode to thee, and tidings do I bring.”
Around the turn of the 20th century, a carnival ride with a spiraling slide began appearing at British fairs. They were called Helter-Skelter slides, the name derived from the established meaning as these intense slides were mean to thrill as the slider went very fast and became dizzy. It was these fun rides that the Beatles were referring to in their famous 1968 song.
Often used to define any sort of disorder, topsy turvy literally referred to the top and bottom of something being switched. Topsy is clearly an allusion to the “top” of a thing, but Turvy is a bit unclear. Whether merely added for the humor and rhyming or as an adaptation of the Medieval verb tirve, meaning “to turn or to topple over” is unknown.
In any case, topsy turvy appears to be a variant of the phrase “top over terve” first recorded in The Brut, or The Chronicles of England in 1450:
Our stakez made hem top ouyr terve
Topsy turvy is found in numerous recordings since at least the 16th century. One example is from 1555, in Richard Eden’s The Decades of the Newe Worlde:
“…they see the houses turne topsy turuye, and men to walke with theyr heeles vpwarde.”
Not too surprisingly, the name and concept has been used for many children’s books (two examples below) as well as a 1999 movie about Victorian composers Gilbert and Sullivan starring Jim Broadbent.
This common reduplication word for general trickery or magic popped into existence (get it?) somewhere in the early 1600s. From the start it was used as a magical charm uttered by magicians, but the origin or who dreamed it up is unknown.
In 1634, a book titled Hocus Pocus Junior – The Anatomy of Legerdemain was published by an uncredited author. Also of interest, as seen in the book’s title page to the right, at this period of time, conjurers and magicians were called “jugglers” or Juglers. This excerpt from A Candle in the Dark by Thomas Ady, published in 1656, explains the terms more fully:
The first [feature that juggling consists of] is profitably seen in our common Juglers, that go up and down to play their Tricks in Fayrs and Markets, I will speak of one man more excelling in that craft than others, that went about in King James his time, and long since, who called himself, The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus, and so was he called, because that at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery…
There is some speculation that hocus pocus is a corruption of the Latin hoc est corpus used in the Catholic Mass. The idea is that both conjurers and Catholic priests were seen (by some) as tricksters. This theory, by the way, came from John Tillotson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1694, who suggested hocus pocus was a ridiculous parody. Perhaps he was correct but there is no evidence historically that the Archbishop’s supposition was based on fact.
Hocus is thought to be the source for the verb hoax. That doesn’t appear until 1796 though and, although the link seems intuitive, there is no direct evidence to link the two words.
Again we have a word that has seen a shift in the meaning over time. Today, hoity toity applies to people who are “pretentiously self-important, haughty, or pompous.” Originally, the definition applied to one who was “given to frivolity, silliness, or riotousness.” The two applications are similar, to a degree, so the migration is understandable, but how did it come about?
The first recorded use of hoity toity is in the 1668 translation of The visions of Don Francisco de Quevedo Villegas by Sir Roger L’Estrange:
“The Widows I observ’d … Chanting and Jigging to every Tune they heard, and all upon the Hoyty-Toyty, like mad Wenches of Fifteen.”
This reduplication has a clearer etymology. The verb hoit (now defunct) meant “to indulge in riotous, noisy mirth” and is from where the word hoyden > “a boorish clown or rude boisterous girl” is derived. As with most rhyming reduplications, the second word is a nonsensical addition.
The transition of hoity toity to its current meaning was gradual and the reason is unknown. Not until the late 18th century was it associated with a haughty, “look down one’s nose” meaning. The first recorded reference is in 1784, in John O’Keeffe’s Fontainebleau:
“My mother … was a fine lady, all upon the hoity-toities, and so, good for nothing.”
This seems to have been the established definition, Francis Grose noting in his 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:
“Heighty toity, a hoydon, or romping girl.”
Those are a few of many rhyming reduplications used commonly in English still to this day.
What others can you think of?
Etymology sources listed on the LINKS page.