Doubling words (like asking for "milk-milk" when you want cow's milk) is called reduplication, and it's a way of saying that what you want is the original or "real" thing.
One of our recent advertisers, The Real Real, made me think of a cool language thing that’s been on my radar for a few years but that I haven’t covered yet. It’s the doubling of words to show that something is, well, real. I think the first time I heard it was in this ad for the 2015 Ikea catalog: The announcer describes the print catalog as a “book-book.”
Introducing the 2015 Ikea catalog. It’s not a digital book or an ebook, it’s a book-book. The first thing to note is no cables. Not even a power cable. The 2015 Ikea catalog comes fully charged and the battery life is eternal.
He goes on to talk about tactile technology—turning the page with your finger—and how the content comes preinstalled. It’s fabulous. My husband and I both loved it, and because he prefers print books, and I usually prefer ebooks, to this day we still use “book-book” a lot in our house when we’re talking about his books or when I get a physical book in the mail. “Ooh look! You got a book-book!” (It might be a stretch for Ikea to consider its catalog a book, but the point that they were talking about a physical publication was still abundantly clear.)
Then, a couple of months ago, the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. was debating whether it would allow producers to use the word “milk” for products like almond milk and soy milk. According to CNBC, people are drinking a lot more of these kinds of plant-based milks, so the dairy industry has spent more than $2 million lobbying this year, which I imagine could be a reason the FDA is suddenly worried that consumers are being misled about the nutritional value of these non-dairy “milk” products.
And the way I immediately thought about that story was that the FDA was considering limiting the word “milk” so producers could only use it to refer to “milk-milk.” In other words, the original liquid people think of when they think of milk. From what I understand, a law was passed in the EU in 2017 that does stop marketers from using the word “milk” for what some people refer to as—the word fun never stops—“cow-nterfeits.”
Contrastive Focus Reduplication
But doublets like “book-book” and “milk-milk” aren’t new.
We’ve talked about reduplication before. It’s just a fancy way of saying something is repeated, whether it’s a whole word (like when we say “night night” to little children or call a train a “choo-choo”), or whether it’s just part of word sounds (like when you say you’re working with a “hodge-podge” of ingredients or that I should stop “dilly-dallying” and get to work).
But this contrastive focus reduplication is a special form of reduplication. It uses duplication to convey a sense of realness, authenticity, seriousness, or intensity—often, it implies the default case. Books were printed before they were digital, so you intuitively know that a “book-book” is a print book. And to use an example from the “Zits” comic strip highlighted on the Language Log site, the teenage boy, Jeremy, is still in bed and tells his mom checking in on him that “He’s up. He’s just not up-up.” In that case, “up-up” is a more intense or real form of being up than just yelling from bed, “OK, I’m up.”
So it’s not new. In fact, there’s a well-know linguistics paper from 2004 called “Contrastive Focus Reduplication in English (The Salad-Salad Paper)” that includes references that go back decades, and talks about how this kind of reduplication is widespread. Old people do it. Young people do it. British people do it. Americans do it. People who speak German, Spanish, Russian, and other languages do it; and even native speakers of other languages do it when they’re speaking English. It is more common in speech than in writing though.
Another interesting thing is that the paper’s authors describe the phenomenon as “contagious,” writing:
“Even those who claim never to use the construction are sensitive to its contagious quality, once exposed. We have repeatedly caused an outbreak of [contrastive focus reduplication] following presentations of parts of this work.”
That could explain why I thought about “milk-milk” when I heard the FDA story even though none of those stories actually used the phrase “milk-milk.” I’d been exposed to the reduplication pattern, and now it’s lodged in my brain.
The “focus” part of the name is because the duplication focuses your attention on words of the same type or class. For example, if I say, “I’m not bringing a salad,” you could think that I’m bringing something that is completely not in the salad category—meat or dessert—but if I say “I’m not bringing a salad-salad,” you know that I’m still bringing something in the salad family. I’ve focused you onto the salads. We call all kinds of things “salad”—chicken salad, macaroni salad, tuna salad, and so on—and I could be bringing any of those, but you now know you’ll need someone else to bring the green salad, which most people would view as the prototypical salad. Duplicating the word focuses us on things that are considered salads.
If your cousin had been interning and then volunteering and maybe working part time, and your aunt says he got a new job, your judgmental grandmother might ask, “But is it a job-job?” implying that she hoped it was a serious job this time, like the kind of “9-to-5 go into an office” job that she considers the standard, and by saying it that way, she’s also acknowledging that there are other things, like internships and volunteering, that still fall in the broader “job” category.
Reduplication: Verbs and Beyond
You can do this with lots of other parts of speech too, not just nouns. For example, if your younger sister says she likes a boy in her class, and you want to know if that’s the romantic kind of liking, you could double the verb and ask, “But do you like-like him? Or just like him?”
You can even do it with phrases. Kevin Russell, one of the authors of the “Salad-Salad” paper keeps a corpus of examples, mostly from pop culture, and in one from the TV show “The Goldbergs,” the son is telling the father about a problem he has with a girl, and the father says, “Tell me about it,” so the son starts adding details, and the father says, “I didn’t mean tell-me-about-it-tell-me-about-it. I meant I screwed up with a girl too.”
Hyphens for Contrastive Focus Reduplication
And in case you’re wondering how to write these double words, most linguists seem to use a hyphen between them (“I’ll bring a salad-salad”), although the video for the Ikea commercial ran the two words together: “bookbook.”
So if you hear someone doubling words like this, now you’ll know what to call it, and if you’re writing dialogue in fiction and want to reflect how people actually talk, don’t be afraid to occasionally use contrastive focus reduplication. I mean, I know you’d never be afraid-afraid, but you shouldn’t worry. It’ll sound natural.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”
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