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Rhyming Compounds

Little Songs in Language

Dr. Goodword
Rhyming compoundsDid you ever notice the rather sing-song compounds like, well, sing-song? Words like flip-flop, bigwig, okey-dokey, razzle-dazzle, fiddle-faddle, and teeter-totter? (Click here for more.)
Did you ever wonder where they come from, why we make and use them, or why we don't stick to more "normal" sounding words? Most of these words are slangy, to say the least, but they don't go away and we add to their number daily.
Linguists call these words "rhyming compounds" but, as we will see, "sing-song" compounds might be a better term. Some of these compounds are simple repetitions while others have added syllables. Some do, in fact, rhyme but others are alliterative, which is to say, only the consonants are the same, not the vowels. Let me show you what I mean.
1. Rhyming Compounds. Actual rhyming compounds, unsurprisingly, rhyme in the traditional sense of this word. Fuzzy-wuzzy, handy-dandy, and hanky-panky rhyme. The initial word is repeated identically except for the first letter, which changes unpredictably. If a line of poetry ended on the first component of these words, the second component could complete the next line (assuming the poem rhymes, of course).
2. Alliterative Compounds. Chit-chat, ding-dong, and tick-tock, on the other hand, seem to be rhyming compounds but they do not rhyme in the usual way. They are alliterative in that the consonants in the two components are the same but not the vowels. Unlike real rhyming compounds, the consonants are predictably identical but the vowel is unpredictable.
3. Duplicative Compounds. A third type of sing-song compound is a simple repetition of the initial word, as we see in words like bling-bling,
List of Rhyming Compounds:
   (1) In alphabetical order.
   (2) By categories.
bon-bon, and go-go. These words are not composed of rhyming constituents but of identical constituents, repeated. This type of compound is particularly popular in France, where it is often used for nicknames: Corinne might be called Coco, Laurence, Lolo, and Michelle, perhaps, Mimi. They are as rhythmical as rhyming as alliterative compounds, so we must classify them similarly.
4. Complex Rhyming Compounds. There is one more type of sing-song compound that does not fit any of the three categories above: they have an additional syllable or two. I'm thinking now of words like likety-split, cock-a-doodle-doo, and razzmatazz (which is often pronounced razzmatazz with an extra A). These are not rhyming compounds but they do share the rhythmical character of rhyming compounds. We will just call them 'complex rhyming compounds' and use this category as a convenient rug under which to sweep rhythmical compounds that do not quite fit in the other categories.
5. A Yiddish Rhyming Compound Rule. English has also inherited an active rhyming compound rule from Yiddish. This rule is used to create a rhyming compound whose job it is to cast doubt on the first consituent in some way. The rule is this: reduplicate the word, changing the first consonant to SHM in the second consituent: fancy-shmancy, money-shmoney, chilly-shmilly. A fancy restaurant is just fancy but a fancy-shmancy restaurant is one that flaunts its fanciness in ways too obvious. If someone has money, he has money but to say, "Money-Shmoney!" is to bring into question the use of the word: either the person in question has no money or he has so much that money is hardly the word to use.
Now, grammar doesn't like repetition. It has a multitude of means of avoiding it. For example, you don't have to say "John went to town and Mary went to town" or the equivalent in any language. All languages provide a means of conjunction that eliminates the repetition: "John and Mary went to town". Pronouns also serve to eliminate repetition. Languages don't even allow expressions like "John visited John's mother". Instead, a pronoun replaces the second occurrence of John: "John visited his mother." Grammar eschews repetition with a passion (except as a means of intensification). So why does it tolerate rhyming compounds?
The terms we have been using, terms like rhyme, repetition, and rhythm, are all terms of music, not grammar. No two aspects of human being distinguishes it from that of other earthly species than language and music but we usually think of these forms of expression as discrete. Both have rhythms; both have rising and falling pitch. However, songs are music and songs have words. If we find language in music, shouldn't we find music in language?
Sing-song rhyming compounds follow the rules of music more than the grammar of the language, where new words are created by adding prefixes and suffixes. However, some languages actually integrate repetition into the grammar in a process called "reduplication". Look at the following verbs from the Tagalog language of the Philippines and see if you can tell what the future tense prefix is.
bili 'buy' bi-bili 'will buy'
kuha 'get' ku-kuha 'will get'
punta 'go' pu-punta 'will go'
sulat 'write' su-sulat 'will write'
tawa 'laugh' ta-tawa 'will laugh'

The prefix here is a sing-song repetition of the first consonant and vowel of each word.

Music, as I have mentioned, thrives on repetition. Songs rhyme, themes repeat themselves, verses are repeated. The structure of music is based on repetitions and variation on repetitions. Sing-song rhyming compounds behave much more like music than grammatical creations. The reason for the existence of these formations, then, may very well be the result of an invasion of music into language or a region of word use where the rules of music and those of grammar overlap.
I would suggest that sing-song or rhyming compounds are be bits and pieces of music that we add to our language to make it more interesting. Human beings are distinguished from other species most obviously by their language and music. Music is certainly an important part of our lives and we certainly find language in music. We should not be surprised to find music popping up in language.
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