A Higgledy-Piggledy Look at 12 Rare Reduplicative Words

youtube / rebecca o'connell
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.


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.”