I decided to conduct an utterly unscientific study based on only my gut feelings. Who’s going to stop me? [Insert maniacal laugh here].

I investigated words that are formed from two identical syllables. Some examples: bonbon (chocolate, of course), mahi-mahi (the fish) and yo-yo (a toy that goes back to at least 500 B.C.). I wanted to figure out whether these kinds of words had any similarities in origin.

These words could be called reduplications, but it seems simpler to say that the syllable is repeated.

I didn’t manage to get a word starting with every letter in the alphabet, but with help from Facebook friends, I found quite a few.

Ack-ack is an anti-aircraft gun or the fire that it releases. Ack is how the British, starting in the 19th century, clarified the letter a in oral communication. Ack-ack means a-a, which is how anti-aircraft is abbreviated.

A booboo is a minor scrape or bruise. I think many people stop using the word once they’re grown. One can also call a mistake a booboo.

Its origin could be an alteration of a child’s boohoo, to imitate weeping.

Couscous is a North African side dish. It is a steamed semolina or grain. The name is from the Arabic word for “to pulverize.'”https://r.search.yahoo.com/”Couscous” sounds so much more appetizing than “pulverized.”

A dum-dum, with the hyphen, is an unkind description of someone who isn’t smart.

A dumdum with no hyphen is a particularly damaging bullet that expands after it hits. It was invented in the late 19th century at the Dum Dum arsenal in India.

Froufrou means a showy decoration or feature. It’s also an imitative sound, from French, of the rustling of silk of a dress or other clothing.

I know I’ve already mentioned a word starting with c, but cancan seems like a good pairing with froufrou.

The cancan is a bawdy dance that started in France. The women doing the cancan wear froufrou dresses, kicking their legs high.

Though the origin of the name isn’t clear, it might be from a French youngster’s word for duck, can, because the dance might resemble a duck’s waddling. That sounds far-fetched.

I can remember seeing a lithe Goldie Hawn doing a go-go dance on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which ran from 1967 to 1973. I was at a loss to describe the dance, but The American Heritage Dictionary helped. Go-go is “of or relating to discotheques or to the energetic music and dancing performed at discotheques.”

Go-go possibly comes from the repetition of go, which in the 18th century meant what is in fashion. Go-go had to wait a while, I guess.

Juju is a West African charm or object with supernatural power. Juju is also a kind of Nigerian music.

The charm definition might have come from a French word for a toy or plaything, joujou.

(Apparently, juju is also a 1940s term for a marijuana joint.)

A lulu is something that’s spectacular or amazing or sometimes just excessive.

What a lulu of a performance that was. So froufrou.

That’s a lulu of a black eye you have.

I had no idea of its possible origin, but I love it: Likely a reference to Lulu Hurst (1869-1950), the “Georgia Wonder” who was a popular attraction 1883-85 demonstrating her supposed mysterious “force” that allowed her to effortlessly move, with just a light touch, umbrellas and canes held tight by others. She barnstormed the United States and, at 15, was, briefly, one of the most famous women in the land.

A murmur is a quiet, sometimes unrecognizable muttering. If a child is annoyed that Mom has made brussels sprouts for the third time in a week, he likely won’t proclaim his displeasure. He might complain grumpily, in words she really can’t hear.

A murmur is also heart condition that creates an abnormal beating sound.

The roots of the word are from Latin, for “a humming, roaring [from an] imitative origin.”

A no-no is something that shouldn’t be done because it’s unacceptable. Suppose you’re in college and you have three roommates. If your mom sends you cookies, and one roommate takes the last one, that is most certainly a no-no.

No-no is, again, from baby talk, a repetition of no.

A pompom is either the ball on the end of a knitted cap or the puffy ball that a cheerleader shakes. (The second item might make a froufrou sound.)

Its origin isn’t known, but one theory is that it could be related to the Old French word pompe, meaning pomp.

When something is so-so, it’s not good and not bad. It’s somewhere in between. The word has been used since the 16th century, but its origin is unclear.

We’ve seen lots of ballerinas in tutus, or ballet skirts. I was surprised by the origin. In French baby talk, tutu is an alteration of cucu, which means backside.

When we like how a particular food tastes, we might say yum-yum. The word was around by the late 19th century, and it might be from baby talk.

I will admit I take a shortcut and use the more economical yum.

And then we have the reduplications that little kids use. Mama, dada, papa, nana, pop-pop, etc. I was the youngest of six and had my own names for my siblings. My sister Laura became Wo-Wo, brother Richard became Do-Do, sister Maria became Ree-Ree. Do you sense a theme?

So what have I concluded in my gut-based study? Many of our reduplicative words are from baby talk or imitative sounds. A lot of them from French. And others are taken from other languages. My conclusions were not vast.

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Recently I was watching a BBC mystery — as usual — and a reputable doctor was given the name Fuzzy.

Have you heard any such silly nicknames for people? Let me know.


I’m still not finished covering all the news cliches from readers. Be warned.

Sources include Merriam-Webster, The American Heritage Dictionary, Online Etymology Dictionary, DeVico family unwritten archives. Reach Bernadette at

[email protected]

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