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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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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

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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