What Do You Call Compound Words Formed by Two Rhyming Words?

atkins bookshelf wordsCompound words like wishy-washy or mumbo-jumbo, or any words that contain two separate rhyming words are called tautonyms (from the Greek tauto, meaning “the same” and -onym, meaning “name”). In many cases, the first word of a tautonym is a real word while the second part, often nonsensical, is invented to create a rhyme and to create emphasis. In linguistics another term for a word made up of two identical or similar parts (a segment, syllable, or morpheme) is a rhyming compound, 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 four types of reduplication:

ABLAUT REDUPLICATIVES: Partial reduplication of the base word, with only a change in the first vowel (e.g., chit-chat, hip-hop, knick-knack). In general, the order of the vowel sounds in these words follow a rule: they move from the front of the mouth to the back — short “i” to “a” to “o” (e.g., we say tick-tock, not tock-tick; or we say ding-dong, not dong-ding.”) Note how the vowel sounds move from the back to the front of your mouth when you say these words out loud: bit, bet, bat, bot, but.

EXACT (OR SIMPLE) REDUPLICATION: Full reduplication of the base word (e.g., bye-bye, choo-choo, da-da, ma-ma, night-night, no-no, pee-pee, poo-poo). Linguists refer to these words as “motherese,” “caregiver speech,” “child talk,” or “child-directed speech.”

RHYMING REDUPLICATION: Partial reduplication of the base word, with only a change in the first consonant (e.g, hokey-pokey, razzle-dazzle, super-duper). A variety of rhyming reduplication is SHM REDUPLICATION (or ECHOIC DISMISSIVE SHM)Originating in American English Yiddish, the word base is repeated with a copy that begins with “shm-” or “schm-” (e.g., fancy-shmancy, sale-schmale).

CONTRASTIVE FOCUS REDUPLICATION (OR LEXICAL CLONING): Repetition of the word with stress to distinguish its literal meaning from its intended meaning (e.g., John is rich, but he’s not RICH-rich” or “I don’t need a safety pin, I need a PIN pin”).

Speaking of reduplicatives, linguists differentiate between REAL DUPLICATIVES — compound rhyming words that contain one or two nonsensical base words (e.g., dilly-dally, hoity-toity, or mumbo-jumbo) — and FALSE DUPLICATIVES — compound rhyming words that contain two meaningful word bases (e.g., claptrap, cookbook, copshop, or payday).

Most rhyming compounds 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) in addition to some rare or obsolete tautonyms from two fascinating archaic word reference books: Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823) by Edward Moor and A Collection of English Words Not Generally Used (1768) by John Ray. Please contact me if you know of any rhyming compounds that should be added to this list.

airy-fairy: foolishly idealistic; impractical

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

chit-chat: conversation about trivial matters

clip-clop: the sound of horse hoofs on a hard surface

crawly-mauly (rare): to stir or move about

crincum-crankum (rare): full of twists and turns; excessively elaborate or intricate

crinkle-crankle (rare): winding in and out, zigzag; a serpentine wall

crisscross: intersecting straight paths or lines

dibber-dobber: a tattle-tale; a snitch

dilly-dally: to waste time through indecision or loitering

dimber-damber (rare): leader of a group of vagrants or thieves

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

easy-peasy: simple, achieved without difficulty

fancy-schmancy: elaborately decorated to impress

fiddle-faddle: trivial matters; nonsense; a trademarked name for popcorn; as a verb: to fuss

fingle-fangle (rare): trifle; something whimsical or unimportant

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

gibble-gabble (rare): meaningless talk; nonsense

hab-nab (rare): hit or miss, succeed or fail; however it turns out, anyhow; at random

handy-dandy: convenient and useful

hanky-panky: improper behavior, typically sexual in nature

harum-scarum (rare): impetuous, reckless person

heebie-jeebies: a state of nervous fear, anxiety

hee-haw: the loud cry of a mule or donkey

helter-skelter: disorder or confusion; in disorderly haste

higgledy-piggledy: in a disorderly manner

hinchy-pinchy (rare): a child’s game (1890s) where children pinch one another with increasing force

hip-hop: a style of popular music featuring rape with electronic backing

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

hootchy-koochy (or hootchie-kootchie, hoochy-koochy): a dance featuring suggestive twisting and shaking of the torso performed by women who worked in carnivals.

hotchpotch (rare): 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 (rare): disorderly; secret

hullabaloo: a commotion

humdrum: routine, monotonous

hum-strum (rare): music badly played; an instrument out of tune

humpty-dumpty: a rotund person; a thing or person that once overthrown cannot be restored

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

hurly-burly: busy or noisy activity

hurry-scurry (rare): to hasten along hurriedly

I-Spy: a game in which player names the first letter of an object that he or she can see, and the other player tries to guess it

itty-bitty: very small

jibber-jabber: worthless or foolish talk; nonsense

jingle-jangle: the sound that metallic items make

joe Shmoe (or joe Schmo): an average person; no one in particular

kim-kam (rare): crooked

King Kong: a giant ape

Kit Kat: trademarked name of a chocolate-covered wafer bar

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

lovey-dovey: extremely affectionate or romantic

matchy-matchy: clothes, patterns, colors, or decorations that are the same color or very similar

mingle-mangle (rare): a confused mixture; hodgepodge

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

prittle-prattle (rare): trivial or idle talk

ragtag: disorganized, untidy

rantrum-scantum (rare): disorderly, careless

razzle-dazzle: showy, noisy activity designed to impress

riffraff: undesirable people

roly-poly: plump

sale-schmale: doubting that something is actually on sale

shilly-shally: failing to act decisively; to vacillate

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

skimper-skamper (rare): to hurry in a state of confusion

skimple-skamble: senseless, gibberish, rambled and confused

so-so: neither very good nor very bad

splash-splash: to make a splashing sound

super-duper: very good

teeny-weeny: very small, tiny 

teeter-totter: a seesaw

Tic Tac: trademarked name of a hard, rounded mint

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

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

TikTok: a popular social media app that allows users to create, watch and share 15-second videos

tip-top (or tiptop): excellent, of the very best quality; the highest point

tittle-tattle (rare): 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

ugly-pugly: extremely unattractive

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

walkie-talkie: portable two-way radio

wibble-wobble: to move unsteadily from side to side, to tremble lightly, to quiver,

wiggle-waggle: to move jerkily back and forth; shilly-shally

wigwag: to move to and fro

willy-nilly: whether one likes it or not; without any order

wingding: a lively party or event

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

zoot suit: a men’s suit popularized by jazz and jump blues singers in the 1930s, characterized by high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed, pegged trousers and a long coat with padded shoulders and wide lapels


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

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Difficult Tongue Twisters
Rare Anatomy Words
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4 thoughts on “What Do You Call Compound Words Formed by Two Rhyming Words?

  1. Another one I’ve heard and used is matchy-matchy. Per Wikipedia: Matchy-Matchy is an adjective used to describe something or someone that is very or excessively colour coordinated. It is a term that is commonly used in fashion blogs to describe an outfit that is too coordinated and consists of too many of the same types of colors, patterns, fabrics, accessories, etc.
    Given the hyphen, and according to you write-up, it must be fairly new!

    • Hi Charlotte: Thanks so much for sharing this fascinating word. Yes, it is a new coinage for sure, because it didn’t show up in any of my reference books or research. This is a great addition to the list! Cheers. Alex

  2. An interesting post and particularly the reference to American English Yiddish, suggesting that such formations exist in more than just the English language.

    Teaching English in a classroom in Spain many years ago, I mentioned in passing that English speakers liked the sound of words such as shilly-shally and hoity-toity. The students, without exception, found the rhyming effect very ugly, and certainly not something that would be favoured in Spanish.
    I wonder if this is true. Maybe some of your native-speaker-Spanish readers could illuminate this.

    • Hi Isabella: Thanks so much for your note. How interesting that Spanish speakers found the rhyming effect unattractive. Rhyming and alliteration is very common in American English. I suppose that isn’t the case in Spain? Cheers. Alex

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