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A Higgledy-Piggledy Look at 12 Rare Reduplicative Words

youtube / rebecca o'connell
youtube / rebecca o'connell

You may not like mumbo jumbo or jibber-jabber—or when life turns helter skelter—but it’s hard not to like words created by what linguists call reduplication. Sadly, not all reduplicative words, despite their charm, catch on. Here’s a look at 12 that deserve to be rescued from their mostly forgotten place in lexical history. Though they all sound like fiddle-faddle, they have specific uses that go beyond yada yada and twittle-twattle.

1.  PRIBBLE-PRABBLE

This word, which has been around since the 1500s, has the same meaning as its root, pribble: some sort of argument or quarrel, especially one that’s petty or insignificant. The expression pribbles and prabbles means the same. Needless to say, every comment section in the multiverse is full of pribble-prabble.

2. CURLY-MURLY

This word from the 1700s basically means “really damn curly,” so if you ever see someone with next-level curls, consider using curly-murly to describe their 'do. This word could also come in handy when making coiffure requests of well-read hairdressers.

3. EVO-DEVO

First appearing in a 1997 issue of Science magazine, evo-devo has a more scientific sense than the rest of the list: “Rudolf Raff and other pioneers have joined forces to create a young field called evolutionary developmental biology, or ‘evo-devo.’” So this is technically an abbreviation, but it walks, talks, and looks like a reduplication.

4. FINGLE-FANGLE

This term is related to newfangled, which conveys a dismissive attitude toward new stuff, suggesting it’s a bunch of bells, whistles, and crapola. A fingle-fangle is either a piece of junk or an idea so whimsical and insubstantial that it’s barely worth discussing. The OED’s oldest example—from 1652—includes the phrase fingle-fangle fashion, which is fitting. Anything fashionable is probably not going to last, which I hope is true of the man-bun.

5. FLAUNT-A-FLAUNT

Resembling words like rub-a-dub and pit-a-pat, this 16th century term was often applied to birds—or people who strutted like birds. An excessive touchdown celebration could be considered a flaunt-a-flaunt display.

6. GIBBLE-GABBLE

This word for meaningless babbling is related to gibberish and gab—it’s also meant to imitate the honking of a goose, which rarely resembles thoughtful discourse. It can be an adjective as well as a noun, as seen in a 1693 reference to “Gibble gabble Gibbrish.”

7. BRITTLE-BRATTLE

This onomatopoeic word usually refers to a rattling sound. The OED records an 1874 example describing an appropriately creaky sound: “On a mild evening, the tree-toads open their brittle-brattle chorus on the edge of the pond.”

8. BIBBLE-BABBLE

Bibble-babble is basically babble—it can refer to any sort of empty talk and has since the 1500s. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare offered some sound advice: “Endeauour thy selfe to sleepe, and leaue thy vaine bibble babble.” In other words, “Shut up and go to bed.”

9. SKIMBLE-SKAMBLE

Here’s another word that turned up in Shakespeare: in Henry IV Part 1, the phrase “skimble scamble stuffe” refers to nonsense. 

10. FLIPPY-FLOPPY

We’re all familiar with the flip-flop—a favorite exercise of all politicians—but here’s a variation with a little something extra. This word has been around for just over 100 years, and it still pops up here and there, like in this 2003 Australian newspaper article about a dog: “Let's face it, the Pommie with the goo-goo eyes and flippy floppy hair only ever acts as himself, a sort of feckless, loose goose with a few bob.”

11. HAVEY-CAVEY

Anything havey-cavey is uncertain or dodgy in some way. The origin of the term is itself havey-cavey, but it might be related to a sense as a verb meaning to talk twaddle and hokum. An 1891 glossary example shows that havey-cavey-ness can be a serious matter: “A young man who was very ill was said to be in a very havey-cavey state, tottering between life and death.”

12. WIBBLE-WOBBLE

This alternation of wobble isn’t common, but it’s shockingly productive, spawning at least two other rare variations. Anything tottering or oscillating can be described as wibblety-wobblety, and ungainly words or movements can be called wibbly-wobbly. In fact, that word turns up in James Joyce’s Ulysses in an expression that needs to be used more often, by gum: “Bless me, I'm all of a wibblywobbly.”

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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