Thursday, September 19, 2013



Years ago when I lived on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa, I was fascinated by the culture’s take on many European traditions. One of those was the tradition of the use of Junior. In Samoa, Junior was applied to boys whose first name mirrored his family name. The full name of the first Junior I met was Eliapo Eliapo, Jr. I met a Tasi Tasi, Jr., a Malie Malie Jr., and many others.

In honor of that translation of one culture’s tradition into another’s, this week’s words all feature what etymologists call a reduplication, or words that masquerade as reduplications.

Bonbon showed up in English in 1796 from the French word bonbon – a reduplication of bon, or good. And doesn’t a bonbon deserve the moniker goodgood?

In 1954 boo-boo came to English. Its parent word, boob, entered English twenty years earlier, meaning foolish mistake. Boo-boo is a reduplication of boob.

Pompom entered English in 1748, meaning ornamental round tuft. It was originally pompon (1725) & appears to have come from the French word pompe, meaning pomp. It doesn’t appear to be a true reduplication, but it sure looks like one. Many arguments exist for why an ornamental round tuft might display pomp, but nobody knows for sure.

Beriberi came to English in 1725. It defined a paralytic disease prevalent in India. It came from Sinhalese, in which beri meant weakness, but the degree of weakness brought on by the disease was greater than your average weakness, thus beriberi.

The word for the frilly skirt worn in ballet came to us in 1910 from French. Tutu was originally cucu, a reduplication of a part of the body the tutu is intended to cover. A somewhat refined literal translation of tutu is derriere-derriere.

Another reduplication is the word pooh-pooh, which showed up in English in 1827, built on the word pooh, which (like its reduplication) meant to dismiss lightly & contemptuously. Pooh was one of many words first put on paper by William Shakespeare. The bard’s first pooh was uttered by Ophelia in Hamlet.

Reduplication (or faux reduplication, as in pompom above) is responsible for many more words. Rack your brains for some possibilities, & enter them in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.


  1. My mother describes frilly decorations as "frou-frou." I've never been quite sure if that's her word, or if it came from somewhere else.

  2. How about so-so. Does that count? Or only so-so. Ha. I've missed a couple of weeks--out of town, no internet access. Really! I'm happy to see you are still here tantalizing us with our own English language!

  3. Ahoy Rachel6 & Christine,
    Thanks for coming by once more. I'll put so-so & frou-frou on the list. Actually, it would be intriguing to see where all the various frou-frou-defining terms come from (kitsch, knick-knacks, etc.).

  4. I'm so gratified to know that having beri-beri really does mean your very very sick. I love the word frou-frou. Glad Rachel brought it up.