Until I started paying attention, I had not noticed the extent to which we suffuse our speech with short, rhyming words or phrases . . . with poetry. Rhyming poetry does not depend on how the words or phrases appear in written form. So it doesn’t matter how they are spelled or how they are punctuated, for example, by a hyphen, combined into one word, or bearing a space between words. What matters is how the words or phrases are pronounced.
I hope this essay brings joy to you and your children – like Dr. Seuss books do. As you examine the words and phrases I set forth, I think you’ll see the creative mind at work, forging expressions easy to remember and easy to share to become part of our common speech, our lexicon.
Grammarians or linguists employ the word “reduplication” to describe these words. The simplest form of reduplication consists of the “full” repetition of sounds. In English, this is typically baby talk, like night-night. An adult expression is bye-bye. For this essay, I’ll dispense with these.
The next simplest form are “rhyming compounds” where the repetition in the word is “partial,” that is a vowel or consonant sound in one part of the word is different from the other part of the word. Where the vowel changes, linguists call it “ablaut” reduplication. These are words like crisscross or flip flop. Naturally, such words/phrases occur in popular music. You can observe the phenomenon in just the titles of the songs, such as Holly Holy (Neil Diamond), Hurdy Gurdy Man (Donovan), Jeepers Creepers (a 1938 song and 2001 movie), Splish Splash (Bobby Darin), Stupid Cupid (Connie Francis), Tutti Frutti (Little Richard), and Yellow Mellow (Donovan). And such phrases are used for names of products and stores, whose names are typically trademarked, such as Fitbit, Hobby Lobby, Hojo’s (Howard Johnson’s), Hoodie-footie, KitKat, Piggly Wiggly, SlimJim, Snack Pack, SnipSnap, SoyJoy, Willow Pillow, Yik Yak. And there’s the band Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Here are four examples of rhyming compounds ending in –fi: Di-Fi (Senator Diane Feinstein), hi-fi (high fidelity), sci-fi (science fiction), and wi-fi (wireless fidelity).
Let me give you additional rhyming compounds in alphabetical order—first from A to G: backpack, backtrack, be-all end-all, big rig (truck), bigwig, birth dearth, blame game, boo-hoo, boob tube, boogie-woogie, bow-wow, blackjack, brain drain, cater waiter, cheat sheet, chick flick, chilly billy, chitchat, chopshop, claptrap, cookbook, crop top (women’s fashion), deep sleep, dillydally, ding-dong, double trouble, downtown, dream team, dump Trump, eager beaver, even-steven, fat cat, feastie beastie, fender bender, fertile Myrtle, fiddle faddle, finder’s keepers, fit bit, flash crash (the name for the 2010 stock market crash), flimflam, flyby, frozen Chosen (used by a minister to refer to Christians who don’t evangelize), fuddy-duddy, fun run, funny bunny, funny money, Fuzzy Wuzzy (was a bear…), grandstand.
There are many, many rhyming compounds which begin with the “h” sound: hack back (getting information on a hacker), handstand, Handy Andy (movie and book), handy dandy, hang loose mother goose (and stay loose mother goose), hanky-panky, harum scarum, Heather feather, hellhole, Hell’s bells, he said-she said, helter-skelter, herky jerky, heyday (from a German word for surprise, exclamation; changed from hey da to heyday but not etymologically connected to the word day), hip-hop, hobnob, hobo, hocus pocus (originally a disparagement of the Catholic Mass’ words in Latin of consecration), hodgepodge, hoity-toity, hokey-pokey, holy moly, hot shot, hubbub, humdrum, Humpty Dumpty, hurly-burly (Macbeth, Act I, Sc. 1).
And now we continue with the sounds I through S: [if] it bleeds it leads (news reports), itty bitty, jet set, jibber jabber, Jimjam (TV show and additional uses), jingle jangle, Joe Blow, Joe Schmo, knickknack, kowtow, legal beagle, legal eagle, local yokel, loosey goosey, loose moose, loose noose, lovedove, lovey-dovey, lubdub, lucky ducky (or lucky duck), lunch bunch, Mayday (derived from the French [venez] m'aider), meter reader, mishmash, mojo, motor voter, mumbo jumbo, namby-pamby, naysay, nitty-gritty, nitwit, no-go, no flop no drop (used in casinos), no fuss no muss, no pain no gain; okey-dokey (or okey-doke or okie-dokie), palsy-walsy, ping pong, pitter patter, plain-Jane, playday, powwow, primetime, ragtag, razzle-dazzle (dazzle was the original word), riffraff, rinky dinky (or rinky-dink), riprap, rocket docket (a court with an accelerated schedule), real deal, rom-com (romantic comedy), rootin’-tootin’, say-so, seesaw, shilly-shally (based on repeating the question “Shall I?” and then altered based on model of dilly-dally), shipshape, shock jock, singsong, sky-high, snailmail, sneak peek, space race, starvin’ Marvin, stranger danger, stun gun, sump pump, super-duper, Swarmin’ Norman (nickname for General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr.), swatch watch.
And I conclude this section on rhyming compounds with T through Z: ta da, tall tale, teenie-weenie, telltale, Tex-Mex, tick tock (onomatopoeia, that is, the imitation of a sound), tie-dye, tiptop, Tricky Dicky (or Tricky Dick; sometimes referring to Richard M. Nixon), true-blue, Trump bump (a rise in the polls for the political candidate), tweedledum tweedledee (from tweedle "to sing, to whistle" (1680s), of imitative origin; the -dum and -dee are suggestive of low and high sounds), voodoo, walkie-talkie, whim-wham, whirlybirdie (or whirlybird), wigwam, wingding. wigwag, willy-nilly, wishy-washy, woo-hoo, yoo-hoo, zigzag.
You may have noticed that many of these words or phrases end in -y. In English, -y is a suffix that nearly always results in a word of great informality. Thus, the above list includes hokey-pokey, palsy-walsy and willy-nilly. Some words ending in -y started as informal but have become formal, such as movie and goalie.
Let’s put in the next list those words or phrases that have a sound inserted in the middle of the rhyming compound. The sound can be a vowel or a consonant. We could call it a “throwaway” sound because it won’t have any meaning by itself. And it has no accent or what linguists call stress. The sound might be called an enclitic (if it were a suffix to the preceding word) or a proclitic (if it were a prefix to the following word). I included some of these words in the lists in the previous section. So lucky duck was placed in parentheses after lucky ducky. The same for tricky Dick and tricky Dickey. Here we go.
First, let me list three that come from the field of the stock markets: churn ‘n’ burn, fill or kill (execute an order or end it), and pump ‘n’ dump. Now let’s proceed in alphabetical order, initially A through H: bake ‘n’ shake, beat the heat, be there or be square, betwixt ‘n’ between, blame and shame, break-a-leg, bric-a- brac, by hook or by crook, cheer or jeer, chip ‘n’ dip, chock-a-block, claim to fame, click it or ticket (regarding buckling car seat belt), crackerjack, diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, do or die, doom ‘n’ gloom, drill-n-fill (a Hasbro toy but perhaps used by dentists?), [keeping the] drive alive (football), drive-by (the “v” sound), guile and bile, griping and sniping, hackysack, high ‘n’ dry, hither ‘n’ thither, hoi-polloi (literally Greek for “the people”), honky-tonk, Hottentot (from the Afrikaans language), Hour of Power (Rev. Schuller), huff ‘n’ puff (Three Little Pigs), hustle ‘n’ bustle.
Next we’ll look at I through R: icy ‘n’ dicey, I Like Ike (campaign for Eisenhower for president), kinder gentler (President George H.W. Bush), klick klack (from the Car Talk radio show), latest ‘n’ greatest, layaway, lean and mean, Lion of Zion (an award of a Jewish American organization; if Zion is pronounced to rhyme with lion), look-alike, loud and proud, make or break, masters of disasters, me oh my!, meet ‘n’ greet, meet or beat [the competition], Mop and Dop, near ‘n’ dear, onwards and upwards, pace ‘n’ space (basketball), [the] Pack is back (referring to the Green Bay Packers), page to stage (transforming a written stageplay to the stage), rails-to-trails, rat-a-tat, razzmatazz, Red or dead, rope-a-dope, [a tough] row to hoe, run ‘n’ done (basketball).
And finally S through Z: Scooby Doo (a cartoon character), seed ‘n’ feed (and weed ‘n’ feed), 7-11 (the store chain; pronounced seven eleven), shake ‘n’ bake, steak ‘n’ shake, sight-see, snooze you lose, spic ‘n’ span, sprawl ‘n’ crawl, stars and bars, stop ‘n’ shop, surf ‘n’ turf, [through] thick ‘n’ thin, tit for tat, town ‘n’ gown, use it or lose it, walk the talk, wear and tear, wine ‘n’ dine, winky dink, womb to tomb, zero to hero.
There are also a few words or phrases where the throwaway sound is at the end: brightlights, cook the books, heebie jeebie’s, highlight, high sign (or hi sign?), hillbilly, ho hum, hostess with the mostest, pickpocket, vice versa, and waylaid.
From these lists, you can see that every field of endeavor generates its own reduplicates, be it sports, politics, or whatever.
There are at least a dozen phrases that employ two sounds in the middle but they aren’t “throwaway” sounds because they have meaning, such as a prepositional phrase: back of the pack,baked in the cake, blast from the past, clickety-clack, eyes on the prize, [whatever] floats your boat, go with the flow, my way or the highway, name of the game, [put the] pedal to the metal, pie in the sky, reason for the season, shop ‘til I [or you] drop thunder from down under, whale of a tale.
Here are some phrases that use three reduplicates: hatch, match, dispatch; lazy, crazy hazy [days of summer] (Nat King Cole); snug as bug in a rug; woulda shoulda, coulda (or would’ve, should’ve, could’ve). And here are two phrases where the third noun is unexpectedly not a reduplicate: lock, stock and barrel; Wynken Blynken and Nod (from an 1889 poem).
Here are some words and phrases that are very close to fitting, but don’t seem to fit, in the above categories. See if you agree: abracadabra, chain gang, Chatty Cathy, choke and puke, foxtrot, hit ‘n’ miss, kingpin, loudmouth, lump sum, market basket, pick six (a football touchdown immediately after an interception of a pass), pig in a poke, roller coaster, scoop and score (a football touchdown immediately after recovering a fumble), shellshock, sticky wicket, straight-laced, touchy-feely.
How would you categorize these two phrases: how now brown cow; loose lips sink ships?
Do reduplicates, of any variety, occur in other languages? Assuredly, they do. Some languages do so more than other languages. A number of languages are discussed in the technical article, indeed in the entire book, cited above. Here’s one example from Latin: tantum quantum (literally as much as), one of the central themes of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises (no. 23).
Nearly every day I find another example of this “everyday poetry.” Do you know of examples I have missed?
Spero columnist James M. Thunder is an attorney who practices in the Washington D.C. area. He is a frequent contributor.