• Carmen Marie Fabio

Yadda, yadda, yadda

Shutterstock photo Copyright: Sergieiev

A few years ago, while working for a publishing outlet that had a number of French and English community newspapers under its banner, I sat next to a francophone journalist and we would regularly pepper each other with questions about the foibles of our respective native tongues.

He was a harsh critic with exacting standards but I trusted him to review my written French as I knew he wouldn't laugh, but patiently correct it. In turn, I was happy to answer his questions – to the best of my abilities – on the idiosyncrasies of the English language. We regularly worked in conjunction on story translations and I liked to think we were each masters of our linguistic domains until one day he asked me, “C'est quoi un 'muckety-muck’?”

It was right around the time that Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler had released a book chronicling his ordeal after being kidnapped by al Qaeda and held in the Sahara Desert for 130 days. In trying to determine details of her husband's release, Fowler's wife was reportedly told by a senior RCMP officer, “As long as I am in charge of this investigation not one cent will be paid for the release of these high muckety-mucks.”

It's not so much that I was stumped for a definition as I was somewhat embarrassed by the silly-sounding phrase and had a hard time explaining its meaning and origin. Okay, in all honesty, I had to google it. A derivative from the term 'muck-a-muck' of Chinook Jargon origin, a pidgin trade language of the Pacific northwest, it's borne of a dialect composed of elements of Chinook, Nootka, English, French, meaning roughly a ‘person of authority’ and meriting more respect and explanation than I could provide.

This led to discussion and speculation on a number of terms known reduplicatives – a linguistic quirk inherent to many languages including Turkish, Finnish, Hungarian, Japanese, English… but not so much in French unless you include given names like Loulou for Louise and Dédé for André.

My colleague was intrigued enough to ask me about others and for the next five months, we kept a list going of all the English reduplicatives that popped up in every day conversation.

Though most are fairly obvious and self-explanatory – boo-hoo and easy-peasy – others seem to defy logical etymological explanation. While we know that hurly-burly, topsy-turvy, and willy-nilly all mean a general state of disorganization and confusion, their origins are traced back either to other languages (hurreln in vernacular Low German); obsolete English (terve meaning overturn) and antiquated expressions (will I, nill I).

Most children’s first words are reduplicatives borne of babbling in an attempt to imitate adult sounds, hence mama, dada, etc. Except for my kids – the eldest’s first word was the dog’s name and the youngest’s was his brother’s name. Only my middle son noticed me first and it was with a perfect “Mommee.”

It was inevitable that with the pitter-patter of little feet, our vocabularies took on terms like choo-choo, boo-boo, and itsy-bitsy and matured through Rolie Polie Olie and Yabba Dabba Doo.

I neglected to consider, however, that the list would eventually grow to include to likes of Helter-Skelter, Kill Bill, and Hell's Bells.

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