Jeffrey Aronson: When I Use a Word . . . Double troubles

“Duplication” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “The action of doubling”. It has meanings relevant to biology (division into two), mathematics (multiplication by two and the problem of finding the side of a cube with twice the volume of a given cube), in law (a specific type of plea), and anatomy (a fold). In genetics it refers to the existence of two copies of a particular segment in a chromosome.

The first definition of “reduplication” in the OED is “The action of doubling over or folding”, which doesn’t sound any different from “duplication”. So why do we need an extra word that seems to mean the same thing? One reason is that reduplication implies repeated duplication, but although that meaning has been used in the past (e.g. meaning to multiply by four), it is now obsolete. In contrast, the word “redouble” has retained that meaning, i.e. to double again, as anyone who has played backgammon knows.

The opposite process has occurred with “iterate” and “reiterate”. The former means to repeat once (i.e. to do something twice), the latter to repeat again (i.e. to do it more than twice). However, “reiterate” is nowadays used to mean to repeat, even only once.

But “reduplication” is unusual in that it has acquired meanings distinct from those of “duplication”. In medicine a now obsolete use once referred to the occurrence of double rigors during a febrile illness, such as malaria. A current meaning refers to the formation of an extra set of parts, particularly extra copies of all or part of a chromosome or gene.

Linguistic reduplication is repetition of letters or syllables in a word (denoting some grammatical feature) or repetition of a whole word or phrase (sometimes rhetorically). In his 1921 book Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, Edward Sapir, of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, described various uses of reduplication, which he said was used “to indicate such concepts as distribution, plurality, repetition, customary activity, increase of size, added intensity, continuance”.

The title Hobson-Jobson, the glossary that I last discussed two weeks ago, is reduplicative. It is an Anglicization of Shia Muslims’ cries evoking sadness at the deaths of grandsons of Mohammed, Hasan and Husain, asan! usayn!, misheard, or perhaps parodied, by British soldiers in India. Yule and Burnell, the compilers of Hobson-Jobson (1886), adopted it as a striking example of Anglo-Indian, and since 1898 the so-called law of Hobson-Jobson has described how a foreign word enters a language in a form derived from its sound. For example, the fruit that the Aztecs called ahuacatl, Spanish conquistadores called “avocado”.

There are three types of linguistic reduplication. A word or phrase may simply be repeated, as in the tautonymic names of biological species, such as the wren, Troglodytes troglodytes. Or it may be repeated with a small change in either a vowel (e.g. jibber-jabber), or a consonant or cluster of consonants (e.g. hugger-mugger). That such terms rhyme makes them catchy and memorable. As a patient once told me, “Cancer schmancer! I’m as fit as a fiddle!”

Some medical terms are reduplicative. The Japanese term for painful osteomalacia secondary to cadmium-induced nephropathy is itai–itai; it means ouch! ouch! Moya-moya, another Japanese term, describes occlusion of the internal carotid arteries or arteries in the circle of Willis, a cause of stroke in young people; the collateral circulation that develops gives a typical angiographic pattern, which resembles a puff of smoke (moya-moya in Japanese); fuzzy echoes seen during echocardiography have also been referred to in this way. Tsutsugamushi fever (scrub typhus) comes from the Japanese words tsutsuga, illness, and mushi, insect, and o’nyong-nyong, a dengue-like disease, is an East African term meaning severe joint pains. Beri-beri derives from the Sinhalese word beri, debility (i.e. much debility). Borborygmi, multiple rumbling of the guts, combines reduplication with onomatopoeia. And rhythmic repetition is reflected in words such as murmur and susurrus.

If you want to prevent a pregnancy do you use a preventive or a preventative? The word comes from the Latin verb praevenire, whose supine form is praeventum, not praeventatum. So reduplication is unnecessary. Indeed, the OED notes that “Avoidance of [preventative] and the use in its place of ‘preventive’ is recommended by some usage guides.” Good advice.

Jeffrey Aronson is a clinical pharmacologist, working in the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. He is also president emeritus of the British Pharmacological Society.

Competing interests: none declared.