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A Higgledy-Piggledy Look at 12 Rare Reduplicative Words

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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


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.”


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.”


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
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]


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