VanHaren: Another foray into the world of words

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Roger VanHaren

Fair warning: If you aren’t a “wordie,” and you don’t want to waste 10 minutes reading about words, it’s time to pull out now, because we’re about to wander into some new territory.

Last week, I wrote about ablaut reduplication, an unwritten linguistic rule that almost everyone follows without even thinking about it, and I raised the possibility that I might want to tell you about some other kinds of reduplication. Well, here we go.

Remember I explained what reduplication was? Well, you’ve probably forgotten by now (because I said there’d be no quiz). So here’s a definition: In linguistics, reduplication is the expressive repetition of a single word, or the pairing of a word with another of similar sound or spelling. So we looked at word pairs like ding-dong, ping-pong, etc. Remember?

So, okay. Here are some different kinds of reduplication:

1. Rhyming Reduplication. Rhyming reduplication refers to simple word pairs that rhyme: boogie-woogie, easy-peasy, okey-dokey, hokey-pokey, teenie-weenie, super-duper. Nothing too razzle-dazzle about that, right?

2. Exact Reduplication. Exact reduplication employs repeated words sort of like baby talk, which soften the tone of the subject: choo-choo, bye-bye, no-no, night-night. Easy-peasy, right?

3. Shm- Reduplication. Shm- reduplication came into American English from Yiddish roots. It expresses indifference by pairing a word with a made-up re-formation of the first word where the initial consonant is replaced by shm: fancy-schmancy, cancer-chmancer.

4. Comparative Reduplication. This device repeats an adjective to indicate an object’s change over time: “The prices went higher and higher.” “He just got sicker and sicker.”

5. Contrastive Focus Reduplication. Contrastive focus reduplication uses stressed repetition to highlight the distinction between a noun’s essence and its literal state: “Is it cold, or is it cold-cold?” “He was awake, but not awake-awake.”

I’ll bet you’ve used every one of these rules without ever knowing you knew them, right? So before I end this missive, I want to draw your attention to one more unwritten rule which we follow without knowing why: The unwritten adjective rule. Adjective categories always come in a particular order. Any attempt to change this order sounds bad.

So here’s the rule you know but didn’t know you knew: adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-shape-color-origin-material-purpose. So you can have a wonderful little new oval silver English serving tray. Don’t mess with the order, you’ll sound bad. For example, because size comes before color, you can’t have green, big dragons! They have to be big, green dragons!

All right, I promise, no more “word columns” for a while.

Contact Roger VanHaren at