Fuseli’s Three Witches from Macbeth who suggest a meeting ‘when the hurlyburly’s done,When the battle’s lost and won’.

Word Nerds is back in business after a brief hiatus -I left to attend a week’s workshop in London (Facing History, Facing Ourselves) and returned to face the inevitable chaos from the hurly-burly of school!  But, I reduplicate!

Hurly-burly, shilly-shally, pitter- patter, namby-pamby, hoity- toity, flim- flam, and helter- skelter (made famous by the Beatles and Manson’s twisted appropriation of this term.). One of the students called out “And ‘us’ as a group- ‘word nerds’!” We are in the process of compiling a list of reduplicatives. One reduplication led to another and another until the board was full. We realized advertisers, journalists, song-writers and companies love this and judging by the laughter the students, they too think it is fun -a wordy celebration emphasizing the joyousness and exuberance of language.

Burridge (59) describes reduplication as a compounding process where a part of the word is repeated. She notes this process is often under appreciated and that over 2000 are words coined this way.Well we appreciate this process if today was anything to go by.  I shot up the score on the ‘nerdometer’ in the eyes of my students when  I mentioned  my excitement over the discovery of  Wheatly’s Dictionary of Reduplication, published in 1866- but check it out- a great diversion and a way to procrastinate from the hum-drum of other chores.

Wheatly identifies three classes of reduplicatives:

Those where the body of the word remains the same in both sections, but initial letter changes:. Some of my favorites here are namby- pamby, hocus-pocus,  fol-lol: an expression of exultation, hanky-panky- a mystery, or up to no good.

The second group Wheatly identified are those where the’ initial letter  is the same but the interior vowels change often with a change of ‘i’ for ‘a’: or ‘o”’  as in chit-chat, flim-flam, sing-song, fiddle-faddle;a trifling matter, and the wonderful firly-farley– apparently Anglo-Saxon in origin meaning strange and unusual  things, from faerlic-strange.

The third and smallest  is where a ‘group of letters are added in its second portion for euphony and to avoid the hiatus occasioned by the meeting of  two vowels’ as in argle-bargle.

You’ve got to love Wheatly who enthusiastically collected, categorized and researched the etymologies of 600 of these words saying,” I think it’s probable that there still remain thousands that I have not been fortunate enough to come acros’!(Wheatly)

So dilly-dally, helter skelter, higgledy-piggeldy, hurdy –gurdy, clap-trap, ‘a tricky attempt to gain applause specious and artificial ‘.(Wheatly)

Others we found: harum-scarum a wild flight,  or an unsettled person,  flibber-gibber- a lying knave, a sychophant! Then my students noted Bieber-fever, topsy-turvy, brain-drain and blame-game, pell-mell, hum-drum as adjective meaning dull and dronish, pell-mell as an adjective and adverb indicating confusion and particular favorite of mine from Wheatly’s dictionary,  hurkle-durkle :sluggishness in bed!

Lang after peepin greke o’day,

In hurkle-durkle Habbie lay,

Gae to ye’r wark, ye’r dernan murkle

An ly nae there in hurkle-durkle’

Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary (Wheatly)

Songs obviously play with reduplication from Hyland’s hit at the tender age of 16, Itsy Bitsy, Teeny_Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini , and of course Tommy James and the Shondell’s Hanky-Panky!!

But to end with a master of whimsy and reduplication:

On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
and the monkeys all say BOO!
There’s a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can’t catch ’em when they do!
So its Ning Nang Nong
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning
Trees go ping
Nong Ning Nang
The mice go Clang
What a noisy place to belong

is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong

Spike Milligan

Listen here to hear the incomparable Spike read ing this poem: The Ning Nang Nong

So with no more fimble-famble (lame prevaricating excuses) that’s it for the flibber-flabber(frivolus and confused talk).. and with apologies to Shakespeare , tomorrow: To Double or Not To Double!


Burridge, Kate. Blooming English. London: Cambridge, 2004. Print.

Wheatly, Henry. A Dictionary of Reduplicated Words. London: 1866. <http://books.google.com.my/books?id=EoRBAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0