There are several interesting words to describe the same idea:

Knick-Knack and Bric-a-Brac, both defined as:

Small, decorative object(s) of little value.

Bric-a-Brac derives from French and is Uncountable. Knick-Knack is Countable. Apart from these differences, I can’t see why there are different words. Perhaps different classes or regions use different words?

In addition, we have gewgaw and doodad.

In some languages different phonemes can carry emotional significance.

For example, in local Spanish the same idea can be expressed as cachibache. The /tʃ/ can carry the idea of worthlessness.

Other Spanish examples with /tʃ/:

chuchería-junk, junk food

chunche-a piece of unidentifiable junk

casucha-a shack or crappy house

pueblucho-a one-horse town

In Korean, the usage of the /f/ sound used to be heard as immodest*

piksali pault-fault confusion

bijinisu fureynduli -business friendly

(sorry, can't reproduce Hangul here.)

Do repetitive syllables have any emotional significance?

[EDIT] Thanks to the many wonderful and helpful comments which have been posted I am going to rework this question to express my original intent. Initially what I was thinking had to do with emotional content, but I don't think I expressed it very well.

After investigating further in Psycho-Linguistic topics I realize there is emotional content to F1-F2 and F2-F1 placement, and that individual phonemes can carry emotional significance. However, I need to collate this new information in order to reformulate my original idea into a more cogent and cohesive argument.

*"Huffing and Puffing about /f/ing everything" -Hyojin Cho Kim

  • 1
    Other options meaning much the same thing are the duplicate-syllable gewgaw, the k-kissed trinket, and the neither-of-the-above bibelot, bauble, and curio.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 31, 2016 at 23:18
  • @SvenYargs You think maybe the repeated syllables are more significant? Mar 31, 2016 at 23:20
  • I don't know the answer, but the following question may be relevant to the vowel sounds and repetitive structure: crisscross, dillydally, riffraff, etc
    – herisson
    Mar 31, 2016 at 23:22
  • Both words are also used in American English. I don't really understand your "objection" as to why both words exist: they came into English 3 centuries apart. And there are plenty of synonyms that have nothing to do with /æk/, which sound seems to me coincidental to the two words you ask about. Mar 31, 2016 at 23:22
  • Having three such words meaning roughly the same thing is a striking coincidence, but I don't have any suggestions as to what significance the constructions might have. Actually, doodads would be a fourth synonym containing almost-repeat syllables; and Roget's Thesaurus suggests a fifth (that I've never heard of): whim-wham. Maybe there is a pidgin element in the repetitions that is more likely to occur in connection with "inexpensive trifles potentially offered in trade" than in other groups of synonyms.
    – Sven Yargs
    Mar 31, 2016 at 23:28

3 Answers 3


They are called reduplications:

  • The coinage of new words and phrases into English has been greatly enhanced by the pleasure we get from playing with words. There are numerous alliterative and rhyming idioms, which are a significant feature of the language. These aren't restricted to poets and Cockneys; everyone uses them. We start in the nursery with choo-choos, move on in adult life to hanky-panky and end up in the nursing home having a sing-song.

  • The repeating of parts of words to make new forms is called reduplication. There are various categories of this: rhyming, exact and ablaut (vowel substitution).

    • Examples, are respectively, okey-dokey, wee-wee and zig-zag. The impetus for the coining of these seems to be nothing more than the enjoyment of wordplay. The words that make up these reduplicated idioms often have little meaning in themselves and only appear as part of a pair. In other cases, one word will allude to some existing meaning and the other half of the pair is added for effect or emphasis.

Origin of knick-knack:

  • Knick doesn't mean anything in itself in this term; it is merely a reduplication of knack. We now use knack as meaning 'a dexterous facility', but in the 16th century it was used to mean 'an ingenious contrivance; a toy or trinket', and that's the sense that was used in knick-knack.term;

  • Shakespeare also used it in The Taming of the Shrew, 1596:

    • "Why 'tis a cockle or a walnut-shell, A knacke, a toy, a tricke, a babies cap: Away with it."
  • When knick-knack was first used it meant 'a petty trick or subtefuge'. John Fletcher, used it that was in his work The loyall subject, 1618:

    • "If you use these knick-knacks, This fast and loose. "
  • By 1682, that meaning had died out though and a translation of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux's Le Lutrin was using the term with the meaning we currently have for it, that is, small trincket:

    • "Miss won't come in to Buy, before She spies the Knick-knacks at the Dore".

(The Phrase Finder)


I'll point out that bric-a-brac is a collective noun, while knick-knack is a singular noun.

As such, at least in my view, bric-a-brac is less likely to be use to refer to a specific item or items.

I found this neat little knick-knack at the garage sale.

I found these neat knick-knacks at the garage sale.

In my opinion it sounds a bit clumsy to say:

I found some awesome bric-a-brac at the garage sale.

I found this awesome piece of bric-a-brac at the garage sale.

However you might say:

She loves collecting bric-a-brac.

There was a lot of bric-a-brac at the garage sale.

  • 2
    Isn't that information in the question already? "Bric-a-Brac derives from French and is Uncountable. Knick-Knack is Countable. Apart from these differences, I can’t see why there are different words."
    – herisson
    Apr 1, 2016 at 1:44
  • @sumelic you're right. I've edited my question, it might add some value.
    – dwjohnston
    Apr 1, 2016 at 1:47

In general, a knick-knack is an individual object, such as a small statuette on a mantel, while bric-a-brac is a collection of decorative pieces attached to or surrounding a larger piece (such as bric-a-brac set into the edge of the mantel).

Thus a house may be described as having bric-a-brac accenting the gable. Knick-knacks would never be described as accenting something in this fashion.

Though some people may use bric-a-brac to mean a simple collection/accumulation of knick-knacks, without the pieces being attached to anything.

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