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What are the principles that make certain lists sound euphonious?
Name for a type of idiom with two things joined (like “raining cats and dogs”, “bread and butter”)

Is there a word to describe a preferred order in which we describe a list of items (usually two items)?

The following examples illustrate my question better:

"Mom and Dad" ("Dad and Mom" is equally correct but sounds wrong)

"Big And Tall" (In AmE/Culture, this refers to a clothing retailer for larger people; It's never a "Tall And Big" store)

"Food And Drink"

"Black and Blue", "Black and White" (these may just be expressions versus being lists)

There are certainly others but I can't think of them now.

  • Interesting point. I'm not sure that there's even any consistency. Like we always say "mom and dad" -- the woman first -- but "husband and wife" -- the man first.
    – Jay
    Mar 15, 2012 at 17:23
  • @KitFox I don't think that's really the same question. The referenced question asks if there's a name for the pair; this question asks if there's a rule or pattern to the ordering of the pair.
    – Jay
    Mar 15, 2012 at 17:25
  • Then I think you should edit your question to ask if there's a rule or pattern, because you have asked for a word to describe a preferred order, which I think fits the other question.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Mar 15, 2012 at 17:30
  • @KitFox: Agreed your dup is more "precise" than the one I chose, but the two concepts are very closely bound up. Besides which, if I recall, there's no actual "answer word" such as OP seeks anyway, and he is much concerned with the basic question of why Dad and Mom, raining dogs and cats, etc. don't turn up so often. Mar 15, 2012 at 18:19

3 Answers 3


There's a very interesting classic treatment of this phenomenon, using both phonology and semantics, in

  • Cooper, William E. and Haj Ross. 1975. "World Order", in Grossman, Robin E., L. James San, and Timothy J. Vance, eds. Papers from the Parasession on Functionalism, April 17th, 1975, Chicago Linguistic Society.

In particular, Cooper and Ross use the term freezes for cases like bigger and better, fore and aft, kit and caboodle where "the ordering of the two conjuncts is rigidly fixed in normal speech."

  • 1
    I used to be fascinated by the fact that when my parents referred to me and my ex as a couple, they always named me first, whereas my inlaws always named her first. And it was always interesting to note which way round any of our "joint" friends did it - to me, it was often a "statement", but rarely made consciously (a bit like "body language"). Mar 15, 2012 at 18:55
  • I notice, btw, that none of the "exact duplicate" answers mentioned Cooper and Ross, so I'm glad I posted fast. Mar 15, 2012 at 18:57
  • And also btw, the version of "World Order" on my website has Haj's recent corrections pencilled in. Mar 15, 2012 at 18:59
  • Excellent link! One to peruse on the e-reader, I feel. Mar 15, 2012 at 19:31

A very interesting point which Steven Pinker mentions in 'The Language Instinct' is that where one element in such pairs has a high, front vowel and the other has a low, back vowel, the former always precedes the latter. It's always ping-pong, chit-chat, dribs and drabs, spick and span and so on and never the other way round.


I think we say them that way by convention.

  • Nah - there's more to it than just "convention. It's true "my Dad and Mom" occurs less than 1/3rd as often as "my Mom and Dad" in Google Books. But "my Father and Mother" is actually more common than "my Mother and Father". That's because the "formal register" is more influenced by the fact that linguistically and over history, the male is prioritised, but the shorter (familial) forms are more influenced by the fact that children normally bond to mothers before fathers. Mar 15, 2012 at 18:50

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