What is a Tautonym?

atkins bookshelf wordsWords like wishy-washy or mumbo-jumbo, or any words that contain two identical or similar parts (a segment, syllable, or morpheme), are called tautonyms. In linguistics another term for these is rhyming compounds, a subclass of a larger class of words known as reduplicatives. A reduplicative is a word created by reduplication, defined as the process in which the entire word or the stem or root of the word is repeated exactly or with a small change. There are three classes of reduplicatives: (1) Full reduplication of the base word (e.g., “bye-bye,” “goody-goody,” and “bunny-wunny”; with respect to the last word, linguists refer nonsensical words as “motherese,” “caregiver speech,” “child talk,” or “child-directed speech”).  (2) Partial reduplication of the base word, with only a change in the first consonant (e.g., “boogie-woogie” and “fuddy-duddy”). (3) Partial reduplication of the base word, with only a change in the root vowel (e.g., “ding-dong” and “flip-flop”). 

In many cases, the first word of a tautonym or rhyming compound is a real word while the second part (often nonsensical) is invented to create a rhyme and to create emphasis. Most tautonyms begin as hyphenated words and through common usage eventually drop the hyphen to become single words. Regardless of their hyphenation, they underscore the playfulness of the English language. Below are some common tautonyms (many function as nouns and verbs). If you enjoy writing challenges, try writing a single sentence that uses many or all of these words; however, it cannot turn out to be mumbo-jumbo.

argle-bargle: nonsense; heated argument

argy-bargy: heated argument

arsy-varsy: head over heels

boob-tube: television

boogie-woogie: blues-style music with a strong, fast beat; a dance to pop or rock music

chick flick: a movie primary for women

chiller-killer: a refrigerated heat exchange system

crisscross: intersecting straight paths or lines

dilly-dally: to waste time through indecision or loitering

ding-dong: the noise made by a bell; in the UK, slang for a woman’s breast; a noisy argument; an idiot

ding-a-ling: a foolish person

fancy-schmancy: elaborately decorated to impress

fiddle-faddle: a trademarked name for popcorn

flimflam: nonsense; to swindle

flip-flop: a light sandal; backward handspring; abrupt reversal of a position or policy

fuddy-duddy: a fussy or old-fashioned person

gewgaw: cheap, showy jewelry or thing

hanky-panky: improper behavior, typically sexual in nature

harum-scarum: impetuous

heebie-jeebies: a state of nervous fear, anxiety

helter-skelter: disorder or confusion; in disorderly haste

higgledy-piggledy: in a disorderly manner

hobnob: to mix socially, particularly with those of high social status

hocus-pocus: meaningless activity or talk, often to draw attention away from something

hodgepodge: a motley assortment of things

hoity-toity: snobbish

hokey-pokey: trickery; a song that describes the movements of a dance performed in a circle

hotchpotch: a motley assortment of things; a mutton stew with vegetables

hubba hubba: a phrase to express enthusiasm or approval

hubble-bubble: a hookah, an oriental tobacco pipe with a long flexible tube connected to a container where the smoke is cooled by passing through water

hubbub: chaotic noise created by a crowd of people; a busy, noisy situation

hugger-mugger: disorderly; secret

hullabaloo: a commotion

hurdy-gurdy: a musical instrument that makes music by rotation of a cylinder that is studded with pegs

hurly burly: busy or noisy activity

itty-bitty: very small

jingle-jangle: the sound that metallic items make

knickknack: a small object, often a household ornament, of little or no value

lovey-dovey: extremely affectionate or romantic

mishmash: a random assortment of things

mumbo jumbo: language or ritual causing, or intending to cause, confusion

namby-pamby: weak in willpower, courage or vitality

niminy-piminy: very dainty or refined

nitty-gritty: the most important details about something

okey-dokey: OK

pall-mall: a 16th century game in which a wooden ball was drive through an iron ring suspended at the end of an alley

pell-mell: in a rushed or reckless manner

ping-pong: table tennis

pitter-patter: the sound of quick light steps; to move or make the sound of quick light steps

prime-time: the time period when most people watch television

razzle-dazzle: showy, noisy activity designed to impress

riffraff: undesirable people

roly-poly: plump

shilly-shally: failing to act decisively

singsong: the repeated rising and falling of a person’s voice as they speak

skimple-skamble: senseless, gibberish

so-so: neither very good nor very bad

super-duper: very good

teeny-weeny: very small, tiny 

teeter-totter: a seesaw

tick-tock: the sound of a clock ticking; making a ticking sound

tighty-whities: snug white briefs worn by males (variant: tight-whiteys)

tittle-tattle: light informal conversation for social occasions

tohubohu: utter confusion, chaos

tootsie-wootsie (also toots-wootsy): a term of endearment

topsy-turvy: upside down; in a state of confusion

voodoo: followers of a religion that involves witchcraft and animistic deities

walkie-talkie: portable two-way radio

wigwag: to move to and fro

willy-nilly: whether one likes it or not; haphazardly

wishy-washy: weak, feeble, lacking character

yada yada (or yadda yadda): used as a substitute for a longer predictable story; boring language

zigzag: a line or course with abrupt right and left turns; veering alternatively to right and left

Are there any other tautonyms missing from this list?

Read related posts: What is the Longest Word in English Language?
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels

What is an Abecedarian Insult?
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Rare Anatomy Words
What Rhymes with Orange?

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