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I never understood why "There, there" is supposed to cheer someone up. Does anyone know?

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Just another wild guess: a common utterance is "There's a good boy" and similar variations like "There's a brave girl" (your child has just scratched her leg). Perhaps it comes from that opening "There..." –  Joe Blow Jul 7 '11 at 21:48
    
Second wild guess, it makes me think of a physically large parent with a small child resting against the parent's body - the child is "there" on the parent's comfort. (ie, "you're 'there' now, you're resting on my chest, there you are safe on me, there you are home safe, there you are safely tucked in bed") –  Joe Blow Jul 7 '11 at 21:49
    
@Joe Blow: I'd believe that more if what we actually said was "Here, here". But we don't. Although there is "Come, come", which could be interpreted as an invitation to come for a comforting cuddle. Except usually it means "Come to your senses and stop whatever you're doing". –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '11 at 2:23
    
@Fumble, right, when parents say "Here, here" or "Here, precious" etc. that does make sense in that way. "There you are!" is quite common (there you are safe in bed, there you are safe on my chest, there you are now all safe, etc) so again perhaps there's an angle in that. (Of course, I don't know - just a guess.) It's interesting to remember that, simply, "There!" on it's own (unrelated to peuriculture) is something you say essentially when a small task, say, is complete. (You're doing some woodwork, something fits in place ... "There!" Just like woila in france.) –  Joe Blow Jul 8 '11 at 8:26

6 Answers 6

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I don't think it's got much to do with the meaning of the word "there" at all.

It's just a soothing sound that's fairly easy to make. If you repeat it enough times I'm sure it has a somewhat hypnotic effect. Like humming baby to sleep.

LATER: One could go on forever postulating soothing words that could rationally follow one meaningful utterance of the word, but I think this is pointless. It's a kind of mantra, just not as meaningful as Om mani padme hum Which I didn't know meant anything either, until Wikipedia just informed me. But I still wouldn't believe Wikipedia if it told me why we say "There there".

I'll also just point out that earlier on we're much more likely to say "Here" to a distressed child, while presenting a sweet, comforting toy, cuddle, or whatever. Even to a baby too young to understand any words. But curiously, repeating that word rapidly turns it into either an admonition or something cheerleading British MPs say when one of their party scores a political point in 'Parliamentary debate' (if that's not an oxymoron).

In short, the meaning of "There there" is irrelevant to usage, as well as origin.

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If I follow, British MP would say hear, hear, actually I considered an option that there might be related to dear (though the pronunciation is only similar if you compare it with as much flexibility as you would give to analyzing any "baby talk".) –  Unreason Jul 12 '11 at 14:51
    
@Unreason: Yes. I think Hear, Hear! is predominantly British, and somewhat 'archaic' outside Parliament. It probably started from the town-crier's Hear ye, hear ye!. When MP's say it, it more or less means Hear what this person is saying, which I strongly agree with!. –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '11 at 14:59
    
Yes, probably from imperative, though you can find it in KJB; randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19980304 –  Unreason Jul 12 '11 at 15:10
    
@FumbleFingers I'm pretty sure it was originally "Hear him, hear him!" You're spot-on about it meaning "listen to this guy, he knows his stuff!" –  user867 Apr 30 '13 at 3:20

The OED links this usage to the use of there as an interjection to denote a sort of verbal finger pointing (e.g., There, I fixed it):

there, adv. (adj. and n.)

[...]

7 . Used interjectionally, usually to point (in a tone of vexation, dismay, derision, satisfaction, encouragement, etc.) to some fact, condition, or consummation, presented to the sight or mind. Hence there-there vb. trans., to soothe or comfort by saying these words.

I'm not sure I understand the connection, but there you have it.

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There doesn't seem to be any substance to this 'explanation'. There! I've said it! –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '11 at 2:16
    
It's what the OED says. Don't shoot the messenger. –  phenry Jul 8 '11 at 15:27
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Rest assured if I had in mind a target for my 'shot', it was the OED. They correctly 'define' the fact that There! can be used as an interjection in various contexts, but then go on with a completely unjustified Hence as if this is some kind of explanation for the 'soothing' meaning when repeated. You yourself say you don't understand that connection, and I'm really just agreeing with you. –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '11 at 15:59

It's the tone of the voice that really soothes.

"There, there" is also can be short for:

There, there, it's alright.

But it's mainly the tone. If I said "There, there", you would know I was indicating the location of something, or trying to comfort you.

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I found a Word Detective article with some interesting suggestions:

The consolation of that "there's always next year" is the key to "There, there" as a comforting verbal gesture. Its role is to say "Look there, there's something good amid the bad." In fact the comforter often goes on to name the supposedly consoling thing, as in "There, there, she wasn't your type anyway" or "There, there, it's only money."

The article also deconstructs similar verbal mechanisms such as now, now.

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I don't see how following "There, there" with consoling words shows any reason why those two words should consistently come first. What has this "Look there..." got to do with anything? If anything one would say "Look here [is something good]". And "Now now" is usually admonitory, not soothing. –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '11 at 1:53
    
@FumbleFingers I suppose you have a point. It's plausible that the phrase's comforting origins are just as closely related to baby talk. –  HaL Jul 8 '11 at 2:02
    
As in "Mummy talk to baby", not the other way round, perhaps. So far as I recall babies aren't very good at saying th. They're good at m, which is why most Mummies the whole world over are called something starting with m. –  FumbleFingers Jul 8 '11 at 2:20
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In North America, baby talk is an adult speaking to a child. The inverse, I kid you not, is goo goo ga ga. –  HaL Jul 8 '11 at 2:29
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And did you not pick up on my brilliant pun? It was childish, I know. –  HaL Jul 8 '11 at 13:49

I have no references for the following opinion.

We do use the fragment

There!

to signify not only location, but also more importantly that it is a right location. This is an example when someone is looking for something and we are looking for it too (or helping someone find it).

"There" in this case signifies that you found the spot, that you are doing something right and delivers a positive message of support. In this case usually the intonation is excitement, urgency or exclamation.

The use of double signal

There, there.

emphasize the positive message and is usually delivered in calm and supportive tone. As if you have already found what you need or what you are looking for. Here it confirms or reconfirms that things are ok.

This should be enough for possible etymology, but also note that the expression is also used with very small children who can not even understand the spoken language. Therefore, the sound and the intonation do most of the work here and I would say are equally important as any etymology, true or false.

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There, there is probably meant to convey an objective degree of separation - meaning to see that one's troubles are something apart from oneself.

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