Thursday, June 24, 2010

Humpty Dumpty Et Al


English boasts many evocative reduplicative words—words in which a sound is repeated, usually preceded by a different consonant—namby pamby, mumbo jumbo, Turkey Lurkey. Such words are usually for either comic or emphatic effect. For some reason unknown to me, a great many of them begin with the letter h.  A dozen or more easily spring to mind: helter-skelter, harum-scarum, herky-jerky, hoi polloi, Henny Penny, hocus pocus, hubba hubba, hurly-burly, hoity-toity, hokey pokey, holy moley, hugger-mugger, higgledy-piggledy, hanky-panky, hodge podge, hob nob, hootchy-kootchy, hotsy-totsy, hubble-bubble, hurdy-gurdy, Humpty Dumpty, and, of course, Hammacher Schlemmer

Harum-scarum, meaning “reckless or irresponsible” stems from the roots of harass and scare (sort of like shock and awe, one supposes).   Helter-skelter (“confused, haphazard”) is probably from the Middle English skelten (“to come and go”).  Higgledy-piggledy, which similarly means “in jumbled confusion,” probably was inspired by the way a herd of pigs huddle in disarray.

Hodge-podge (originally hotch-potch) is also a jumbled assortment, and its root is the French hocher (“to shake together”) plus pot. Hocher may also be the root of hootchy-kootchy, a sinuous burlesque dance, which involves a good bit of shaking as well as couching, that is “bending the body.” ­Hocus-pocus, an imitative Latin phrase used as magical invocation, stems from the word hoax; and it morphed into hokey-pokey, which can be ice cream sold by a street vendor or a dance (not to be confused with hootchy-kootchy) involving various body parts.

Hoity-toity (“silly, frivolous, flighty”) comes from the English dialect word hoit (“to play the fool”).  Hoi polloi is Greek for “the general population or the masses.” Hurly-burly ("uproar or tumult") is thought to derive from the verb hurl. Hugger-mugger, of unknown etymology, means "secret or muddled confusion."  Hanky-panky, as if I had to tell you, is "sexual dalliance," and is also of unknown etymology.

You can probably figure out the etymologies of the rest if you put your mind to it.

What you probably cannot figure out is the rationale for verses like the following, which was turned out by the Bardy-Wardy of Buffalo Bayou:

            Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
            But a really lousy winter,
            He had the flu, and then a brawl,
            And infection from a splinter.

            Humpty hoped he’d have a fine spring,
            Filled with birds and flower blossoms.
            Instead, his arm was in a sling,
            And he was bitten by some possums.

            Humpty hoped for joy that summer,
            But it was not that way at all,
            Summer proved to be a bummer,
            And at its end—he had a great fall.           

1 comment:

    Came across this link from, the Globe's website. Some of the errors are a bit obvious, but it is, after all, for business people, not scholars. Nevertheless, the article, as well as some of the comments and tweets, might prove mildly interesting to the Buffalo Bayou Bard.
    Loving these posts as I await arrival of the book!