At a political rally that I attended, the leader complained to his followers: “Those people are making such a halla-balla about our policy." The dictionary entry of this word reads “hullabaloo", which is a variant of Scottish haloobaloo. The meaning is great noise, uproar.

Compounds of this kind are called reduplicating compounds. They are formed by taking a word of two parts, and changing one part while retaining the other part.

Take the word hugger-mugger. Starting with the base hugger, we change h- into m- and we retain -ugger. This gives us a rhyming compound. It means muddle, confusion, disorder.

English has a large number of such compounds. Some of these words are nonsense syllables put together. For example, hoity-toity, itsy-bitsy and eensy-weensy are jocular coinages. But there are some words that we do hear in serious discourse. I have heard several speakers calling for attention to the nitty-gritty. A critic of a government department may say that there is some hanky-panky going on there. Hanky-panky means deceit or trickery, as used in this sentence: “The media suspected that there was some hanky-panky in the million-dollar deal."

One of the best known examples of this kind comes from Shakespeare. In Macbeth, the witches utter the lines, “When the hurly-burly is done, /When the battle is lost and won." Hurly-burly means disorder or turmoil. In the opening scene itself the witches set the tone for the supernatural events to come.

There are a few interesting words referring to business. A wheeler-dealer is a shrewd businessman, who knows how to get around obstacles and reach his goal. He makes clever, and sometimes dishonest, business moves. Eager-beaver, on the other hand, is someone who is excessively enthusiastic and willing to work hard. From their nursery rhymes, children learn the compounds higgledy-piggledy and Humpty-Dumpty. Boogie-woogie and flower power have come to us from the middle of the 20th century. The former is a style of music and the latter is a slogan of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s.

Even in this small set, we find some synonyms. Pell-mell, topsy-turvy and harum-scarum are synonyms that mean hasty, disorderly, reckless. “His school books and stationery were piled pell-mell in his room."

There are three types of reduplication. One is the exact repetition of a word, as in blah-blah, bye-bye and win-win. The second type, which is the most interesting, gives us rhyming words. Hob-nob has two elements which become meaningful when combined, but don’t mean much when alone. “He can be seen hob-nobbing with the celebrities of the capital." In the third type, there is a vowel change in one part of the word: wishy-washy, mish-mash, tip-top.

Here are some more words that we are likely to come across. “Hearing an explosion, the crowd ran helter-skelter and that led to the stampede." A negative sense is given to riff-raff, which refers to an undisciplined mob. Hocus-pocus and abracadabra are words that go together. Hocus-pocus refers to a complicated ritual performed with elaborate paraphernalia, which confuses the spectator and fills him with supernatural fear; mumbo-jumbo refers to the language used at these rituals.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has an interesting list of reduplicating words, which the author calls ricochet words. To ricochet means to bounce off a surface. In the list we find the useful phrases, dilly-dallying and shilly-shallying. High-and-dry and wear-and-tear are phrases in common use.

The name of the movie, English Vinglish, has the structure of a reduplicated word, but not the sense. Compare this with another ricochet word from the 20th century, Hobson-Jobson. It is the name of a valuable reference book on English in British India. The title is said to be a variation of the lament uttered by Muslims during the Moharrum procession: Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain! But that is stretching the etymology too far.

Hobson-Jobson has cited a duplicated compound of Indian origin: naukar-chaukar, defined as “a jingling double-barrelled phrase in which Orientals delight". Hurry-burry too can be regarded as an Indian addition to the reduplicates stock.

V R Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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