Some English words only differ in their vowels: crisscross, dillydally, riffraff, etc. Is there a name for them?


4 Answers 4


Frozen reduplicative phrases like these, especially ones made of nonsense or phonosemantic roots like riffraff or hocus-pocus, are simply called Freezes in the literature, following Cooper and Ross 1975*, the first study to investigate them thoroughly.

Of course, freezes like hocus-pocus don't vary the vowels but the consonants. There is to my knowledge no fancy name for freezes that vary only their vowels.

Cooper and Ross* note that there are a number of reasons, some phonological and some semantic, that explain why one does not find reverse freezes like

*raffriff, *pocus-hocus, *crosscriss, *dallydilly

*William E. Cooper and John Robert Ross, 1975. "World Order" in Grossman, San, & Vance, eds. Papers from the Parasession on Functionalism, Chicago Linguistic Society.

  • 1
    That's an interesting link, but it gives a pretty big list of "sort collation" principles governing the sequence of "freezes". I don't know if there's any prioritisation in the list, but I tried driving a "coach and horses" through it. On that basis, the first possibility was animate (men and machines), which failed, followed by front (fore and aft) and agentive (subject and object) which worked. But when I got to power source (horse and carriage), it started to unravel for me. Why should horse precede carriage, but coach precede horses? Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 23:04
  • 1
    hocus-pocus is often said to be a snide description of transubstantiation and a parody of the Latin words of institution hoc est corpus (this is [my] body).
    – Henry
    Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 23:04
  • 1
    @John: Yeah, I do realise they're effectively "post-factum rationalisations". But to be honest, it seemed to me that below a certain level of detail they're in danger of becoming inconsistent. The biggest factor is probably just that most important (biggest, nearest, etc.) normally comes first. So your father introduces you and your wife to others as John and Jane, whereas your father-in-law will probably introduce you as Jane and John. Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 23:38
  • 1
    Yup. That's why fixed phrases are important. Nonce conjunctions like John and Jane are going to follow other conventions in context. What the patterns in Cooper and Ross show is that there are large-scale trends that aren't necessarily definitive, but show the drift. Like Jupiter's gravity sweeping the asteroids in its orbit into the Trojan Lagrange points. Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 23:59
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    I've seen these described as "ablaut reduplication", and a quick Google search shows this terminology is not totally unknown. [journals.cambridge.org/action/… [dailywritingtips.com/the-nitty-gritty-about-reduplication/] [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reduplication#English]
    – nohat
    Commented Dec 10, 2013 at 8:25

It’s called reduplication. You find it in such words as zigzag and mishmash. It’s especially common in hyphenated words like chit-chat and teeter-totter. Here is a selection of such from the OED:

bibble-babble        drip-drop            moon-man             shiffle-shuffle      tisty-tosty
bing-bang            fible-fable          muster-master        shilly-shally        tit-tat
bingle-bangle        fiddle-faddle        niddle-noddle        shim-sham            titter-totter
chiff-chaff          filly-folly          niddy-noddy          sing-song            tittle-tattle
chip-chop            fingle-fangle        nid-nod              skimble-skamble      titty-totty
chit-chat            fix-fax              niff-naff            slipper-slopper      tric-trac
chitter-chatter      flim-flam            niggers-noggers      slip-slap            trim-tram
chuffe-chaffe        flip-flap            nig-nog              slip-slop            tringum-trangum
click-clack          flip-flop            ning-nong            smick-smack          trinkum-trankum
clink-clank          flipperty-flopperty  peat-pot             snick-snack          trittle-trattle
clinkum-clankum      fribble-frabble      pid-pad              snipper-snapper      trit-trot
clip-clop            gibble-gabble        ping-pong            snip-snap            twiddle-twaddle
clipper-clapper      giff-gaff            pip-pop              spitter-spatter      twingle-twangle
clish-clash          head-hid             pish-pash            splish-splash        whimsy-whamsy
clitter-clatter      higgle-haggle        pit-pat              splishy-splashy      whim-wham
clush-clash          hip-hop              pitter-patter        squish-squash        whitter-whatter
coon-can             hirrie-harrie        plip-plop            swing-swang          whittie-whattie
crick-crack          jibber-jabber        pot-peat             swish-swash          wibble-wobble
crickle-crackle      jiggy-joggy          prittle-prattle      switter-swatter      wibbly-wobbly
crinkle-crankle      jim-jam              ribble-rabble        teenty-taunty        widdle-waddle
crinkly-crankly      jingle-jangle        rickety-rackety      teeny-tiny           wiggle-waggle
crinkum-crankum      kim-kam              ric-rac              tick-tack            wiggly-waggly
criss-cross          knick-knack          riff-raff            tick-tock            wig-wag
dibble-dabble        knit-knot            rip-rap              ticky-tacky          wimble-wamble
diddle-daddle        Lib-Lab              rittle-rattle        tig-tag              wimbly-wambly
dilly-dally          ling-long            rope-ripe            tingle-tangle        wish-wash
dimber-damber        loch-leech           scribble-scrabble    ting-tang            wishy-washy
dindle-dandle        micro-macro          scrip-scrap          tinkle-tankle        wringle-wrangle
ding-dong            mingle-mangle        scritch-scratch      tipsy-topsy          
dingle-dangle        mish-mash            sheet-shot           tip-tap              
dingle-dongle        mixty-maxty          shick-shack          tip-top              

Those all match the (ir)regular expression

(\w+)          ([aeiouy]+)  (\w+)
 \1    (?! \2 ) [aeiouy]+    \3 

. . . which is how I found them.


Here’s the same list after running John’s pipeline. I’ve right-justified them so it lines up more interestingly.

           Lib-Lab        jingle-jangle          clish-clash            slip-slap              pit-pat
           ric-rac        mingle-mangle          clush-clash            snip-snap              tit-tat
         tric-trac      wringle-wrangle        splish-splash              rip-rap           sheet-shot
           pid-pad        tingle-tangle            mish-mash          scrip-scrap            knit-knot
          head-hid      twingle-twangle            pish-pash              tip-tap             peat-pot
           nid-nod        dingle-dongle        squish-squash              hip-hop            trit-trot
     chuffe-chaffe      crickle-crackle            wish-wash            chip-chop              fix-fax
     hirrie-harrie      crinkle-crankle          swish-swash            clip-clop          niddy-noddy
   whittie-whattie        tinkle-tankle          shick-shack            flip-flop          jiggy-joggy
       fible-fable        rittle-rattle          click-clack            plip-plop      splishy-splashy
     bibble-babble      prittle-prattle          smick-smack            slip-slop          wishy-washy
     dibble-dabble      trittle-trattle          knick-knack              pip-pop          ticky-tacky
     gibble-gabble        tittle-tattle          snick-snack            drip-drop        wibbly-wobbly
     ribble-rabble            rope-ripe          crick-crack              tip-top        wimbly-wambly
 scribble-scrabble            giff-gaff            tick-tack        jibber-jabber        wiggly-waggly
   fribble-frabble          chiff-chaff            tick-tock        dimber-damber      crinkly-crankly
     wibble-wobble            niff-naff          clink-clank      clipper-clapper          dilly-dally
   skimble-skamble            riff-raff            shim-sham      snipper-snapper        shilly-shally
     wimble-wamble              tig-tag            whim-wham      slipper-slopper          filly-folly
     diddle-daddle              wig-wag              jim-jam        muster-master           teeny-tiny
     fiddle-faddle            bing-bang              kim-kam      chitter-chatter        whimsy-whamsy
     widdle-waddle            ting-tang            flim-flam      whitter-whatter          tipsy-topsy
   twiddle-twaddle          swing-swang            trim-tram      clitter-clatter      rickety-rackety
     niddle-noddle            ding-dong      tringum-trangum        pitter-patter        teenty-taunty
     dindle-dandle            ling-long      clinkum-clankum      spitter-spatter   flipperty-flopperty
   shiffle-shuffle            ning-nong      crinkum-crankum      switter-swatter          tisty-tosty
     higgle-haggle            ping-pong      trinkum-trankum        titter-totter          titty-totty
     wiggle-waggle            sing-song             coon-can      niggers-noggers          mixty-maxty
     bingle-bangle              nig-nog             moon-man          criss-cross   
     dingle-dangle           loch-leech          micro-macro             pot-peat   
     fingle-fangle      scritch-scratch            flip-flap            chit-chat

And here are some that differ in the initial consonant cluster:

          sea-flea         splash-dash            pop-shop         hurdy-gurdy
           sea-pea           rush-bush            top-crop         rowdy-dowdy
             fa-la              sci-fi             pop-top        crowdy-mowdy
       tirra-lirra               hi-fi       fender-bender         hokey-cokey
           hob-job               Wi-Fi       gender-bender         hokey-pokey
           hob-nob           demi-semi       hugger-mugger         lovey-dovey
         club-drub        tutti-frutti       killer-diller         ruffy-tuffy
         dead-head           jack-back      pooper-scooper         piggy-wiggy
          seed-bed           back-pack         super-duper     hootchy-kootchy
           wed-bed          pack-track        water-skater         ricky-ticky
           zed-bed           pack-sack      helter-skelter         mifky-pifky
         seed-weed           back-tack     whister-clister         hanky-panky
    shagged-ragged          nick-stick       pitter-litter         minky-winky
          skid-lid          rick-stick       butter-cutter        hooky-crooky
        mind-blind           rock-cock           fair-hair           sally-fly
        hoard-ward          cock-block           hurr-burr             dry-fly
     soogee-moogee          stock-lock           dos-à-dos       Piggly-Wiggly
           tee-hee         smock-frock         hocus-pocus         higly-pigly
       hokee-pokee           cook-book         holus-bolus         jelly-belly
       hodge-podge             fal-lal             rat-bat         willy-nilly
     boogie-woogie           pall-mall          float-boat         lilly-pilly
     walkie-talkie           pell-mell             rat-tat         nilly-willy
     nookie-bookie           will-gill         night-light        trolly-lolly
     curlie-wurlie          trill-rill         night-sight           roly-poly
    peepie-creepie          noll-kholl         light-tight         hurly-burly
     tulyie-mulyie             tol-lol             tit-bit         curly-wurly
     hubble-bubble            wham-bam            hot-shot       miminy-piminy
   scamble-shamble     william-nilliam            pot-shot       niminy-piminy
   ramble-scramble             ram-jam           root-knot             toy-boy
     nimble-pimble            cram-jam             hot-pot            shoy-hoy
     humble-jumble            ram-stam             nut-cut         nimpy-pimpy
     mumble-jumble       hirdum-dirdum           tohu-bohu         rumpy-pumpy
     rumble-jumble       heckum-peckum             yaw-haw        happy-clappy
     rumble-tumble        harum-scarum             tow-row     hickery-pickery
    double-trouble           rum-strum             kow-tow   shimmery-whimmery
     toodle-loodle             rum-tum             bow-wow      quavery-mavery
     raggle-taggle             pan-man             Tex-Mex             dry-fry
     ringle-jingle             fan-tan             lay-day           rory-tory
     keckle-meckle             ran-tan            play-day        cherry-merry
     hustle-bustle            fen-phen             May-day         hurry-burry
     razzle-dazzle             sin-bin             pay-day        hurry-scurry
        prime-time             lin-pin             nay-say       teensy-weensy
        ruff-scuff             non-con            play-way         hotsy-totsy
         huff-duff       Hobson-Jobson         rubby-dubby        slawsy-gawsy
          shag-bag             bon-ton         namby-pamby       highty-tighty
           rag-bag           loco-foco         hiddy-giddy         hoity-toity
          shag-rag             Neo-Geo         hoddy-doddy         ranty-tanty
           tag-rag             yoo-hoo         coddy-moddy       humpty-dumpty
           rag-tag              to-fro         hoddy-noddy  flibberty-gibberty
         gang-bang            snap-cap         fuddy-duddy        twisty-wisty
   mincing-pincing             rap-tap   higgledy-piggledy        nitty-gritty
         wing-ding            drip-tip         handy-dandy         tuzzy-muzzy
           fog-dog          stump-jump         randy-dandy         fuzzy-wuzzy
       catch-match            cop-shop         lardy-dardy  

   hotch-potch           slop-shop         hirdy-girdy  
  • 2
    If you have them one-to-a-line in a file, rev file | sort | rev > mirrorfile to have them reverse-alphabetized, which gets interesting groupings. Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 20:59
  • 7
    High vowel comes before low vowel, and front vowel comes before back vowel, and quite often both; in almost every case. Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 21:12
  • 2
    That's one of the big patterns that Cooper and Ross point out. Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 21:14
  • 3
    Pfft! How come I knew who posted this answer before I was halfway through reading it?
    – user16269
    Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 2:52
  • 2
    In 'The Language Instinct' Steven Pinker discusses why in such pairs the low front vowel precedes the high back one. It is, he suggests, because the former is associated with the here and now and the latter with things more distant. Commented Sep 4, 2012 at 6:26

Some words of this kind are formed by reduplication:-

  1. Linguistics a. To double (the initial syllable or all of a root word) to produce an inflectional or derivational form. b. To form (a new word) by doubling all or part of a word.

although crisscross isn't formed this way:-

[Alteration of Middle English Cristcrosse, mark of a cross, short for Cristcross (me speed), may Christ's cross (give me success).]

it would appear that riff-raff:-

[Middle English riffe raffe, from rif and raf, one and all, from Anglo-Norman rif et raf, rifle et rafle : Old French rifler, to rifle; see rifle2 + Old French raffler, to carry off (from raffle, act of seizing; see raffle).]

and hoo-haa:-

1930–35; probably < Yiddish hu-ha to-do, uproar, exclamation of surprise; compare Polish hu-ha exclamation of joy

are, if you track them back to the original languages.


Words in which only one sound is different are called minimal pairs.

  • 4
    But I think that isn’t what he’s asking about. I think he wants to know about the very frequent coinages from reduplication. See my answer.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 20:57

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