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How Onomatopoeia and Reduplication Make Weird Words

By
Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
May 12, 2017
Episode #568

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Today’s episode is about words that are kind of fun to say, such as flip-flop, gaga, and dillydally. You may have noticed that certain sounds are repeated in these words, and you may be curious why that is. Therefore, no more shilly-shallying.

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is also a fun word to say. It is Greek for “word-making.” In English, onomatopoeia refers to “an attempt to capture the sound of something.” English is full of onomatopoeic words, such as buzz, crash, and tick tock. Some are quite old, including buzz, which dates back to the 14th century. 

Two other fun imitative words are flip-flop and gaga. Flip-flop can be a verb meaning to make an unexpected reversal, as in “Maggie flip-flopped when deciding where to go on vacation.” This sentence explains that Maggie changed her mind about where to travel. Flip-flop can also be a noun referring to summer footwear with that doodad between your big toe and its neighbor. Flip-flop sandals are also called “thongs,” and they make a flip-flop sound as you walk in them. A variant of flip-flop is the less common word flip-flap, which has been used in an “echoic” sense since the 1520s.

Gaga, as in “Ben went gaga over all the cool gadgets in the store,” means overly enthusiastic or silly. It came into English in around 1920, from the French word gaga, meaning senile or foolish. Dictionary.com says that gaga is “probably imitative of meaningless babble.”

Many languages feature onomatopoeic words, especially for animal sounds and machine noises, but in many cases, different words for the same sound are used. For example, in English, woof woof describes what a dog says, but in Japanese, it’s wan wan and in Greek, ghav ghav. As for dripping water, the sound of it is described as drip drop in English but plic ploc in French and plitsch platsch in German. In the case of the variations in the description of dripping water, notice how the versions in the three languages all contain the letter P, which in linguistics is an example of what’s called a “plosive,” or a type of explosive consonant sound. [7] Whatever the exact phrase you use for animal sounds, machine noises, or falling water, recent linguistic research suggests that “sounds relate to meaning for the words that children encounter during their early years.” Perhaps meaningless babble isn’t so meaningless after all.

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