When Language Goes All Topsy Turvy

When Language Goes All Topsy Turvy

The 1904 song “Meet Me in St. Louis” promises, “We will dance the Hootchee Kootchee, I will be your tootsie wootsie, if you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the Fair!” With lyrics by Andrew B. Sterling and music by Kerry Miles, this became the theme song for the classic 1944 film of the same name, directed by Vincent Minelli and starring Judy Garland. This delightful musical—in which Louis is pronounced Loo-ee—celebrated the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition/World’s Fair held in that city to commemorate the centennial of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. According to the Collins Dictionary, the hootchy kootchy is “a dance performed by women that was once common in carnivals and fairs, marked by a sinuous and often suggestive twisting and shaking of the torso and limbs.” But it is also—along with tootsie wootsie—an example of a rhyming compound or “reduplicative,” the myriad examples of which enliven our speech, are fun to say, and add an air of playfulness to our prose.   

Reduplication involves the repetition of a word or part of a word, often with a slight change in its form, as in goody goody or easy peasy (lemon squeezy). When the vowel in the second word changes, it’s called “ablaut reduplication.” It seems humans love to create these silly, musical jingles that pepper our language—we take pleasure in the alliteration (repeated initial consonants) and assonance (repeated vowel sounds) of these constructions. We’ve been creating them for hundreds of years, some tracing back to the early 15th century. Whether they are rhyming, as in loosey goosey, or feature a changing component, as in chit chat, the effect is the same: they make a serious-sounding word—loose or chat—sound silly, thus adding an air of playfulness to what’s being said. Some, like super duper or tip top, intensify the meaning. As Patrick B. Oliphant once wrote, “Correct me if I’m wrong: the gizmo is connected to the fling flang connected to the watzis, watzis connected to the doo-dad connected to the ding dong. 

I’m sure you can think of many examples (a partial list is included here). “Her closet is a mess, with shoes stored willy nilly, and clothes strewn all higgledly piggledy. And her taste for gew gaws and fingle fangles is on full display in her jewelry box.” Some of the more unique (or nearly obsolete) reduplicatives include skimble skamble, meaning rambling and senseless; ricky tick, a sweet jazz style reminiscent of the 1920s; and hurly burly, a tumult or uproar. So don’t indulge in any hanky panky while you boogie woogie to the ricky tick! In Greek, etsy ketsy means so-so, neither good nor bad. And the French use comme ci, comme ça to express the same shrug of the shoulders. 

The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was especially fond of these expressions. In 2015 he wrote, “The Court’s next bit of interpretive jiggery-pokery involves other parts of the Act,” referring to underhanded manipulation or trickery. He also used hodge podge (a heterogeneous mixture or jumble) in a 1991 legal opinion, and argle bargle (a dispute or controversy) in 2013. Scalia was not alone. In 1961 Tom Clark wrote that “railroads have played hanky panky with their rates”—meaning underhanded (or improper sexual) activity, and William Douglas used hocus pocus in a 1960 decision, referring to sleight of hand. William Taft wrote in 1922 of a man’s “attempt to evade his obligations by a hugger mugger” [confused muddling] of his various corporations.” The book I’m reading is such a hodge podge, it’s driving me cray cray! Other languages have similar constructions.

Rantum scantum, meaning careless or disorderly, has been in use “for over 400 years now; the word appears in print as far back as  the 17th century.

Sir Barnaby: No better nor no worse, are these trappings fit for a Ladies Chamber? there has been Rantum scantum doings within, the Bed’s turn’d Topsy Turvy, Men’s Cloathes and Women’s, thrown Higeldy Pigeldy; whilst some are at it, helter skelter, arsy versy, hand over head, and the Devil and all.

Captain: What a Pox is all this — I am a shark, if I understand one syllable of what he sayes. —Edward Ravenscroft, The Canterbury Guests, 1695” (merriam-webster.com)

Speaking of helter skelter—defined as in undue haste, confusion, or disorder—the darkly playful song of this name from the Beatles’ White Album was unfortunately adopted by Charles Manson to justify his crazed fantasies of starting an apocalyptic race war in Los Angeles, when he led his followers on a murder spree in 1969. His arrest and prosecution are chronicled in the 1974 book Helter Skelter: the True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson in the 1970 trial. 

Pell mell means in mingled confusion or disorder. In a little-known tidbit of history, while President of the United States (1801-1809), “Thomas Jefferson believed that the president’s dress and manners should reflect the republican simplicity and informality of the country. Pomp and show reminded him too much of the European courts.” To ensure that the American public did not mistake their president for a king, he adopted a purposeful informality, such as shaking hands instead of bowing, and dressing informally for official receptions. For the same reason, “he promoted what came to be known as ‘pell-mell’ etiquette, a much more informal style of dinner etiquette than that observed by his predecessors [or successors]. He refused to observe the rules of protocol in seating his dinner guests. First come, first served was the rule in the White House. Jefferson explained: In social circles, all are equal, whether in, or out, of office, foreign or domestic; and the same equality exists among ladies and gentlemen.” This “pell mell policy” caused considerable tension with diplomats and their wives, who were offended by his homely dress and having to fight for a seat at the table.

So, the next time you hob nob with the riff raff, don’t act hoity toity, but give a nod to the linguists who identify and analyze cool language phenomena like reduplicatives. Such snippets of silly rhyme make the language more colorful. Most of all, they are just plain fun to say. I hope I don’t seem namby pamby (insipid and weak) when I admit how much I enjoy them! I’m just tickled pink to be able to share them with you. 

Reduplicative Examples

Rhyming Compounds

  • Artsy fartsy 
  • Boogie woogie
  • Bow wow
  • Chick flick
  • Easy peasy (lemon squeezy)
  • Fuddy duddy 
  • Hanky panky
  • Harum scarum
  • Helter skelter
  • Higgledy piggledy
  • Hob nob
  • Hocus pocus (minnie-ocus)
  • Hodge podge
  • Hoity toity
  • Hootchy kootchy
  • Hugger mugger
  • Hurly burly
  • Jeepers creepers
  • Jibber jabber
  • Jingle jangle
  • Loosey goosey
  • Namby pamby
  • Okey dokey
  • Pell mell
  • Rantum scantum
  • Razzle dazzle
  • Ricky tick
  • Spit spot
  • Super duper
  • Teeny weeny
  • Tidbit 
  • Tootsie wootsie
  • Walkie talkie
  • Willy nilly


  • Chit chat
  • Ding dong
  • Fingle fangle
  • Flim flam
  • Flip flop 
  • Gew gaw
  • Hip hop 
  • Mish mash
  • Ping pong
  • Pitter patter
  • Riff raff
  • See saw
  • Shilly shally
  • Sing song
  • Skimble skamble
  • Tick tock
  • Tip top
  • Topsy turvy 
  • Wishy washy
  • Zigzag


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