How Onomatopoeia and Reduplication Make Weird Words

Onomatopoeia is a fun word to say. It is Greek for “word-making.”

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
3-minute read
Episode #568

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 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.


Many nursery rhymes seem to contain meaningless babble. Take, for example, “Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” which starts “Hickory, Dickory, Dock, the mouse ran up the clock.” Childish poems like this may not make much sense, but they do use rhyme and nonsense words to teach concepts to young children. According to PBS.org, “Not only does the repetition of rhymes and stories teach children how language works, it also builds memory capabilities that can be applied to all sorts of activities.” Researchers have shown that children as young as 18 months “are better at grasping the names of objects with repeated syllables, over words with non-identical syllables.” This may explain the existence of words like choo-choo and night-night.


Another interesting concept is at work behind the scenes of fun words like dillydally and shilly-shally. This is something called reduplication, which means “[t]he repeating of parts of words to make new forms.” If you dillydally, you waste time. This English word has been around since about 1735, and as Dictionary.com puts it, dillydally is a “gradational reduplication of dally.” Dally, which also means to delay, has been in existence since the 13th century and comes from a French word meaning to chat.

Shilly-shally means to waste time, too, and it also indicates indecision, as in “Tim shilly-shallied at the grocery store when trying to decide which vegetables to buy.” This fun word has been around since the late 17th century and originates from the repetition of the question “Shall I?” It was later “altered on the model of its synonym dilly-dally.” 

Finally, here’s a short list of a few more fun words that were formed using reduplicationflimflam, meaning deception; mumbo jumbo, which refers to a foolish ritual; willy-nilly, meaning in a random manner; and higgledy-piggledy, meaning jumbled. Online Etymology Dictionary says that h/p reduplication like higgledy-piggledy is common, noting hanky-panky, hocus-pocus, and hodge-podge.


Well, that was a hodgepodge—or assortment—of interesting words. Hope you thought the episode was super-duper.

About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.