Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny

Nancy from Traverse City asked why so many rhyming phrases, such as hurly-burly, end with the long vowel sound –eee–. She conceded that not all such formations end in an –eee– sound, citing chitter-chatter, fiddle-faddle, helter-skelter, and more.

But she included this list as an illustration:

dilly-dally, eeny-meeny, funny-money, holy-moley, hokey-pokey, hotsey-totsey,
itsy-bitsy, namby-pamby, nitty-gritty, okey-dokey, piggy-wiggy, rinky-dinky,
roly-poly, shilly-shally, silly-Billy, skinny-Minnie, teeny-weeny, willy-nilly, and

The technical term for this pairing is reduplication; they’re also called echo words. I’m not sure why that terminal sound predominates, but two things struck me as I went through her list.

(1) The –eee– sound is sometimes used derogatively. It expresses derision; you can almost hear the sneer. So we have rinky-dinky, artsy-craftsy, artsy-fartsy, dilly-dally, wishy-washy, roly-poly, namby-pamby.

(2)  In other cases, it’s imitative of childish formations and speech, as in piggy-wiggy, itsy-bitsy, eeny-meeny, teeny-weeny.

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