And the doctor says my Marvin is suffering from an Oedipus complex

Alexandra Jelínková

“And the doctor says my Marvin is suffering from an Oedipus complex.” – “Oedipus-Schmoedipus,” scoffed her neighbour, “so long as he loves his mother!” 

Oedipus-schmoedipus, baby-shmaby, virus-schmirus– all these delightful constructions with origins in Yiddish are used in modern English to subtly indicate irony, derision or scepticism. However, they are far from being the only lexical items in English produced by doubling the root or stem of a word and subsequently altering the duplicate: maybe you’ve already come across some culture-vultures at an artsy-fartsy exhibition of modern art and maybe you’ve had to listen willy-nillyl to some cray-cray, drunken bibble-babbleof an unpleasant cellar-smeller at a lavish booze cruise party on a boat. If you’re a native speaker of Czech, you’ve probably heard someone exclaim “ajta krajta!” in surprise or seen a social event described as being a little too “hogo fogo”.

All the aforementioned compounds are products of reduplication, a linguistic process discussed in my Master’s thesis, the title of which is “Hokey-Pokey, Higgledy-Piggledy vs. techtle mechtle, láry fáry: A Contrastive Linguistic Analysis of Reduplicative Expressions in English and Czech”. As seen in the examples above, reduplication is a minor word-formation process which involves repetition of some component of a morphological base to convey some form of meaning, serving various purposes in different languages. It is often used to convey grammatical meaning; for instance, in Indonesian, reduplication is employed to form the plural in nouns (anak-anak, ‘children’). However, both in Czech and English, reduplication is of very little grammatical significance and is mostly used in lexical derivations to create semantic forms.  Thus, my thesis was concerned with collecting instances of Czech and English reduplicative compounds – “reduplicatives” – and their consequent analysis from morphological, etymological and semantic points of view.

For the purposes of my research, I had collected more than two hundred English and more than one hundred Czech reduplicative expressions, which were subsequently grouped into four major categories based on the morphological process of their formation. The compounds were divided into reduplicatives with consonant alternation (such as harum scarumor děs běs), vowel alternation (such as criss-crossor pif paf), with an additional consonant cluster (such as airy fairy or ábr fábr), and reduplicatives in which the base word is copied with no further alteration (such as bling-blingor kiš kiš). My research led to the conclusion that partial reduplication with consonant alternation is the most common type of morphological formation in both languages under consideration. In Czech, the second most common variant is full reduplication with no changes in the copied word, whereas in English, the second most frequently observed type is reduplication with a change in the root vowel. A possible explanation for this discrepancy is that while many of the originally Czech reduplicative expressions relate to the speech of children and onomatopoeia (such as paci pacior kap kap), most of the reduplicatives with vowel alternation were adapted from other languages (kris kros, ping pong,hiphop). Since many reduplicatives were formed by taking a word used normally by adults, shortening it, adding the suffix -y and doubling it (for instance, máchatbecomes máchy máchyin childish speech), the amount of possible “copy reduplicatives” in Czech is virtually unlimited.

The connection between Czech reduplicatives and the world of children is to be observed also in relation to the semantic classes of reduplicatives. Based on the meanings the expressions carry in speech and writing, I grouped the collected expressions into fifteen major semantic domains. In Czech, the largest category comprises expressions semantically linked with music and games, bringing together 18% of the Czech reduplicatives in my corpus, including words from songs and lullabies (halí belí, ruty šuty) and counting rhymes (elce pelce, enyky benyky). In English, the most prominent domain is that of ‘mockery and disdain’. This category comprises 19% of the expressions in my English corpus, including compounds expressing negative feelings or qualities, such as loathing or contempt. Examples include namby-pamby(‘weakly sentimental’), hotsy-totsy(‘pretentiously fashionable’), and goody-goody(‘ostentatiously behaving in a correct or virtuous manner’).

The delightful world of reduplicatives is joyful and rich and has been a reliable source of infotainment in English for centuries. In fact, one of the conclusions of my thesis is that more than half of the studied reduplicatives originating in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19thand 20th centuries are still in use in contemporary English, and that more and more are being added; fans of the British science fiction TV series Doctor Whowill surely recognize the catchphrase “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff”, while others might have already shared “If the person who named Walkie Talkies named everything”, a post that went viral on social media in 2018 which reimagines stamps as lickie stickies, forks as stabby grabbies, and pregnancy tests as maybe babies. I’d therefore like to humbly invite every reader interested in the wonderful world of reduplication to find my thesis in the IS and discover the whole collection of English and Czech reduplicatives assembled for my research, as well as some more insights into morphology, etymology and semantics connected with this linguistic phenomenon.


(The opening joke was taken from Leo Rosten’s book The New Joys of Yiddish: Rosten, L. (2003). The New Joys of Yiddish. New York City: Three Rivers Press.)