Saturday, 15 July 2017

separate sounds

There is a small category of expressions in English that consist of either two words or a hyphenated compound in which the only difference between the two parts is the internal vowel. Perhaps the commonest such expression is zig-zag, but there cannot be many more than two dozen examples in total, and for this reason I didn’t think that there was a technical term for their construction. But there is: it’s called ‘apophony’, from the ancient Greek prefix ‘apo–’ (‘away from’, ‘separate’) tacked onto the ancient Greek word for ‘sound’.

Several of these expressions are onomatopoeic in nature. For example, ding! dong! is the purported sound of a bell, tick! tock! the sound of a mechanical clock, and clip! clop! the sound of a horse’s hooves on a paved road. A less common example is jingle! jangle!, the sound made by someone wearing an inordinate amount of costume jewellery as they walk along. However, a typical bell actually goes ‘ding! ding!’, unless it’s a Chinese bell, which can sound two different notes depending on where it is struck. The same point can be made with regard to clocks and horses’ hooves: creating two alternating sounds where only one exists in reality. Splish! splash! is also onomatopoeic, although I do wonder whether this term was ever used prior to the release of a song with this title by Bobby Darin in 1958.

It’s possible that whoever coined the term ping pong had onomatopoeia in mind (the sound of bat, ball, bat, etcetera), but I suspect that it arose when someone discovered that the Chinese are rather good at table tennis, allied to the fatuous notion that this is how Chinese people speak.

Some apophonic expressions have interesting etymologies. For example, shilly shally derives from the Old English subjunctive ‘shill I’ juxtaposed with the indicative ‘shall I’. Needless to say, it means to prevaricate or dither. Some expressions derive from what is a perfectly ordinary word that is somewhat arbitrarily turned into an apophony. A good example is dilly dally; ‘dally’ already means to dawdle, the same meaning as the longer expression, and I’m left wondering whether there are any earlier examples of this term than the old music hall song:
My old man
Said “follow the van,
And don’t dilly dally on the way.”
Other examples of this sort include tip-top, which means simply ‘the best’, sing song, which describes a group of people informally singing songs together, and chit-chat, which refers to light-hearted conversation or ‘chat’. In some cases, the derivation of a term may be fanciful. For example, whenever I hear a confidence trickster described as a ‘flim-flam artist’, I’m immediately reminded of the flimsy connection with reality being peddled by the trickster.

There follows a list of all the other apophonic expressions that I could think of, with additional comments where appropriate:
  • bric-a-brac refers to odds and ends that have some aesthetic value, as opposed to knick-knacks, which are ornaments and other oddments with little or no intrinsic value. Note the additional syllable, presumably to make it easier to pronounce. Clickety-clack, the sound that a train used to make when it rolled over the gap between rails before they started welding individual rails together, is a similar construction.
  • fiddle-faddle is a northern English dialect word meaning nonsense.
  • in gymnastics, a backwards handspring is known as a flick-flack.
  • flip-flops are informal footwear that make a flopping sound as the wearer walks along, while a politician may be said to flip-flop when they have radically changed their mind, opinion or position.
  • jim-jams are what some people call their pyjamas (I don’t).
  • a lilo is a type of inflatable mattress. The word is said to derive from the fact that this product allows the user to ‘lie low’, although it was once a proprietary term in its clipped state.
  • a mish-mash is the indiscriminate mixing of different styles or ideas with little or no consideration for how these styles or ideas might be interrelated.
  • riff-raff is used, disapprovingly, to describe members of the lowest stratum of society. In this regard, it is synonymous with hoi polloi, which is also usually used nowadays to refer to people of whom one disapproves, even though the phrase means simply ‘the many’. If you use the phrase in this way, it may mean that you are a member of hoi oligoi (‘the few’). In other words, you are an oligarch.
  • the wire baskets containing river cobbles that you often see stacked up along the banks of rivers to prevent erosion or flooding are known as rip-rap.
  • a tick-tack man was someone wearing white gloves on a racecourse who signalled changes in betting odds to people in the stands, although whether they still exist in this era of smartphones seems unlikely.
  • tittle-tattle is idle gossip.
There are several commercial products with apophonic names. For example, Kit-Kat is a chocolate-covered wafer biscuit originally manufactured by Rowntrees but now part of the Nestlé empire; Tim Tams are chocolate biscuits made by Arnott’s in Australia; and Tic Tacs are mints that are consumed to freshen the breath. And King Kong is a legendary giant ape that terrorized New York (and movie audiences) in several films.

If you’ve been paying attention, you will probably have spotted that all of these expressions have something else in common besides the characteristics I pointed out earlier: the vowel in the first part of the expression is always an i, and the vowel in the second part is always an a or an o. There appears to be some kind of unwritten rule in operation. After all, referring to what is probably the most recently coined apophonic expression, no one listens to ‘hop-hip’ music, although whoever first came up with hip-hop to describe a genre of urban black music could plausibly argue that they weren’t following any rules. They were simply using trendy language to describe a fashionable dance.

One question arises from the possible existence of a rule: if i takes precedence over a and o, then which takes precedence between a and o? It isn’t possible to answer with certainty, but there are a couple of clues. First, the American name for what we call noughts and crosses in Britain is tic tac toe. The second clue is in the French nursery rhyme Frère Jacques:
Frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines
Ding! Dang! Dong!
It tells the story of a dilatory monk, Brother Jack, whose job it is to ring the bell for matins but who has fallen asleep on the job. Each line is repeated, but notice the last line, which is how the French refer to the ringing of a bell. This observation provides a good reason for further research into whether the rule, if it exists, also appears in other European languages.

Meanwhile, here are some further clues as to the existence of a rule. First, we always give tit for tat, not vice versa. Second, people may arrive at a given point in dribs and drabs rather than all together, but never in ‘drabs and dribs’. Third, Jeff Beck sang ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ in 1967, not ‘Ho Hi…’. Finally, I can cite the Australian campaign of a few years ago to reduce the incidence of skin cancer, which had the slogan Slip! Slap! Slop! (‘Slip on a shirt; slap on a hat; slop on some sunscreen’). It is possible that the wording of the nonsense song sung by the Scouts, Ging Gang Goolie, was also influenced by the conjectured unwritten rule, as was a silly chant taught to members of the Cubs (‘Dib! Dib! Dib! Dob! Dob! Dob!’).

If there is a rule governing the formation of apophonic expressions, then it’s possible that it has a basis in more formal grammar. After all, we talk of ‘the big bad wolf’, not ‘the bad big wolf’. However, if the rule does exist in formal grammar, where did it come from?

I have a hypothesis. One of the significant ways in which Latin differs from English is in the concept of nouns having a gender (masculine, feminine or neuter). Latin also has a paucity of prepositions, which means that both case (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative or ablative) and number (singular or plural) are determined by changes to the ending of the noun in question. Adjectives are not tied to a single gender but have to match the gender of the noun being modified. Thus, the demonstrative adjective this is hic, haec, hoc in Latin, which represents the nominative case—used whenever the noun being modified is the subject of a verb—of the three possible genders. This can also be a demonstrative pronoun, in which case the gender rules still apply.

It isn’t necessary to recite the entire so-called declension of a noun, adjective or pronoun in order to learn the word, but I imagine that in the Middle Ages, when Latin was a key part of the curriculum for the fortunate few who received any kind of education, pupils would probably have been required to recite the entire declension of a noun or adjective, which involved 36 combinations of case, gender and number. And notice the vowel changes in hic, haec, hoc, which mirror closely the vowel changes I described above. This could have influenced the collective consciousness of the time in such a way that ‘big bad wolf’ sounded right, while ‘bad big wolf’ sounded odd. This is merely a conjecture, of course, but it does sound plausible.


  1. The old music-hall song actually says "Follow the van" - a removal van: the family are doing a midnight flit because they can't pay the rent.

    1. Thanks for that Peter. Although I don’t like being wrong, I do appreciate it when someone points out that I’ve made a mistake.


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