Argle Bargle: 5 Meanings of Word Reduplication
By Arika Okrent
In his angry dissent to the court's decision on the Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday, Justice Scalia conveyed a specific kind of derision through his use of several colloquial expressions. He talked of the court's impatience to "blurt out" its opinion and said that the majority's explanation "takes real cheek." With reference to the taking up of the issue of gay marriage in the first place, he said that "some might conclude that this loaf could have used a while longer in the oven." He accuses the majority of having an inability to resist painting the other side as monsters, and laments that with a "too bad." The use of such casual, folksy expressions enhances the attitude of disdain by implying, "I won't even deign to use my fancy educated voice; that's how little I think of this."
The most noticeable of these expressions was "argle bargle," a term he used to describe the reasoning behind the majority opinion. At Visual Thesaurus, Ben Zimmer gives the background on the roots of "argle bargle" in Scottish rhyming slang. It came from a playful transformation of "argue" and means a tussle or spirited dispute. It is also used to mean nonsense, which is how Scalia uses it here.
Argle bargle makes use of reduplication, which in some languages is a grammatical process that can indicate things like plurality or verbal aspect. In English, we wouldn't exactly call reduplication a grammatical marker—it isn't used in a very productive or rule-governed way, but there is a pretty consistent association between reduplicated forms and a certain set of meanings. Reduplication can involve copying of whole syllables (mama), rhymes (teeny weeny), or changing vowels within syllables (known as ablaut reduplication: mishmash). Here are five related meanings conveyed by reduplication. (There is disagreement on whether these terms should be hyphenated or not. I'm going to leave them all unhyphenated for the sake of consistency.)
1. Babyish, small, cute
There is a lot of reduplication in baby talk: mama, bye bye, boo boo, pee pee. This is probably how reduplication gets more generally associated with the idea of small or cute (teeny weeny, itsy bitsy, fuzzy wuzzy, lovey dovey). You can use reduplicated forms with the intention of invoking "babyish" in a friendly way, but you can also use it to imply childishness.
2. Scattered, inconsistent
Reduplicated forms can also convey disorderly movement or grouping, and by extension, recklessness: zig zag, pell mell, higgledy piggledy, topsy turvy, ragtag, mishmash, hodgepodge, willy nilly, helter skelter, harum scarum.
3. Frivolous, shallow
Bringing together the implications of childishness and scatteredness is a group of terms used to call things frivolous, shallow, vague or airheaded: hippy dippy, artsy fartsy, wishy washy, airy fairy, namby pamby, chit chat, dilly dally, tutti frutti. Razzle dazzle can be used to imply something distastefully showy, but it can also have a positive meaning—excitingly showy!
All the other meanings come together here. What is talk that is childish, scattered, inconsistent, frivolous and shallow? Nonsense. In other words, hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo, claptrap, jibber jabber, and, of course, argle bargle.
5. To diminish, take away power
If the negative implications of reduplication can be used to call things inconsequential and weak, they can also be used to take the bite out of threatening things, to take some power away from those who would use derision against you.
So, Justice Scalia, you may have a hoity toity degree from a fancy schmancy school, but your blowing a gasket over certain kinds of hanky panky just makes you an old fuddy duddy.