English vocabulary: funny word pairs

As a native speaker I do not find English a very poetic language, but there are some words in English that are a pleasure to say and hear, such as ‘higgledy piggledy’,’hugger mugger’, ‘topsy turvy’ and ‘pell mell’.

Most of these words are rhymes, so they have the same end sound but a different starting sound.

The mix of same and difference may give a slight clue as to their meaning, for all of them mean the same thing – untidy, upside down, confused, all over the place. For example: “My house is all topsy turvy, everything is all over the place”, or, ”Sorry everything is so higgledy piggledy, I will tidy up later”.

Other fun sounding examples of rhyming compounds are: ‘hurly burly’, ‘super duper’, ‘itty bitty’, ‘razzle-dazzle’, ‘bees knees’, and ‘lovey dovey’. With most of these words the first word gives a clue to the meaning which the second word reinforces: for instance ‘lovey’ from ‘love’, and ‘dovey’ from ‘dove’ (a bird that symbolises love) combine to mean an extravagant show of affection.

Examples of more serious rhyming word pairs are ‘nitty gritty‘ ( as in “let’s get down to the nitty gritty” or ‘the fundamentals’) and ‘wheeler dealer’ (as in “he’s a bit of a wheeler dealer”, meaning someone who likes buying and selling for his own advantage).

Dilly dally’ is another fun sounding verb made famous by the musical hall artist Marie Lloyd: it means to delay or move slowly. It is an example of an assonating compound: two words with the same consonant sound. Another assonating compound, one more familiar to EF English Live students, is the word ‘ping pong’ which is another word for table tennis.’ Zig zag’,’ wishy washy’, ‘see saw’, and ‘mish mash’ are more fun sounding common assonating compounds.

You may also come across word pairs where both words have meaning when they stand alone, but when they come together it gives greater meaning for instance: “They were a dream team the year they won the double.”

You may also come across short phrases with two words linked by an article or a conjunction: For example “I want some peace and quiet”. The phrase “I do not want to be the life and soul of the party, but I will just grin and bear it till the party is finished” uses two common noun phrases and a common verb phrase.

These English phrases do not work the other way round, so it is always ‘peace and quiet’, not ‘quiet and peace’. ‘Here and there’ is a common adverbial phrase using word pairs and ‘short and sweet’ is an example of an adjectival phrase.

Rhymes and repetition are a good way for children to learn a language so perhaps it is not surprising that there are so many phrases that feature repetition. Why not go out and learn some of these phrases and in dribs and drabs try and introduce them into your language? Before you know it you will be sounding like a native.

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