a bit of razzle-dazzle

It was fun to hear someone use the term “higgledy-piggledy” the other day.

Say what?

You know, higgledy–piggledy, hodge-podge, hurly-burly. These words have more in common than their shared meaning: confusion or disorder. They’re formally called “reduplicative compounds,” meaning paired words that usually differ only in a vowel or consonant. Commonly, they’re called “ricochet words.” Think nitty-gritty, lovey-dovey, tick-tock. Just saying them seems to make the sound ricochet around the room.

Or how about exact reduplications, like bye-bye, boo-boo, or twenty-twenty? Or comparative reduplications like “It’s getting hotter and hotter” or “My cow is getting gentler and gentler.”

One interesting thing about reduplications is that they seem to enter the language at times in history when people are feeling lighthearted and playful. For example, the 1920s (immediately following World War I) spawned reduplicative terms like the bee’s knees, heebie-jeebies, and boogie-woogie.

Louisiana Five Jazz Band, 1919, Courtesy of Nunez family collection via Wikimedia Commons

My favorite reduplication?


While its first meaning, when introduced way back in 1703 in Sir Richard Steele’s The Tender Husband, or The Accomplish’d Fools, a Comedy, was to be indecisive,

“I’m for marrying her at once. Why should I stand shilly-shally, like a country bumpkin?”

It’s come to mean, for me at least, an all-purpose piece of cloth for glamping adventures … and you can see how it all started with a bit of indecision. Here’s the explanation from my Ideabook:

“What’s a ShillyShally? I came up with this name for a three-foot-square piece of pure cotton fabric when I once tried to describe my attachment to this versatile piece of cloth. ‘Shill I be a bandanna? Shall I be a bath towel? Shill I be a tablecloth? Shall I be a boa? Shill I be a bathing suit top? Shall I be a hankie? Shill I be a dishtowel?’ It’s all those things and more, and when I’m camping, it becomes my faithful companion as well. Dishtowel fabric, maybe colored, works best, and I prefer one with a bit of embroidery; it just seems more special that way. It has to be thin so it dries out fast and knots easily. Sometimes, I choose pure white, especially when I’m camping in the desert—white just seems to speak ‘reflect’ better. When I’m backpacking, it becomes my ‘blankie’ of sorts, a source of comfort and security.”



  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    What a fine shilly-shally you are wearing! This was a term I have never heard of until I read your Ideas book. I also did not know it was part of the more common reduplicative compounds either. It is just fun to learn about words and I always enjoy this segment when you share something super-duper!!

    Wagons Ho in another hour! Whoop!!

  2. CJ Armstrong says:

    I have a shilly-shally and hope to get a bit more embroidered on it soon! It’s a great item for gamping, sitting on the deck in the evening, etc.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. terry steinmetz says:

    I am looking forward to making myself a shilly-shally. My grandma called her shawl–which was really a piece of material she had lying around–her babushka. She would put it over her head when the wind came up as she collected her eggs. Or she’d use it as a scarf for around my neck in the winter cold. Whatever I call it, I want make a nice one for my glamping experience!

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MaryJane Butters was milking her cow

When Megan cried, “Hurry, Mom, follow me NOW.”

Together, they ran to the garden to see …

A beanstalk (heirloom) as big as a tree.

Photo by Tim Sackton via Flickr

That, my friends, was a clerihew.


No—like this:


More than mere willy-nilly rhyming verse, this type of half-pint poem has rather distinct rules. A true clerihew must contain …

  1. A bit of wit
  2. Four lines of uneven length with the rhyming scheme AABB
  3. The name of the subject within the first line

But, wait—there’s more …

According to Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), originator of the form (at age 16!), a true clerihew will either a) position the subject’s name at the end of the first line, or b) use only the name as the first line. Why? Because the whole point of the poem, he declared, is to rhyme with awkward names.

Maybe I need to take another stab at it? Perhaps something more along these lines:

MaryJane Butters

Was stymied by stutters

When she spied a strange cat

Wearing THIS as a hat.

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    That clip of the kitty and chicken is too much! I am trying to imagine my Mr.Bump doing that and somehow I keep “seeing” a dead chick!

  2. Karlyne says:

    Thanks for the first, and probably one of the best, laughs of the day!

  3. Nice job! You are quite the poet, do you know it? And kitty is very patient! Too cute!

  4. Cindi says:

    Oh that was fun!!! The cat and the hat … 😀

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Some words are so complex and multifaceted that they deserve a day of special notoriety.

I know, I know—you’re already coming up with words like …


Silly girl.

While that is the longest non-technical term in the English language, it has only one meaning:

“The act of describing something as having little or no value.”

Hmmm … touché.

Anyway, a profusion of letters really isn’t the point here.

The word I’ve deemed worthy of today’s curtsy is …

(wait for it) …


No, dear, I’m not pulling your leg.

What you may not yet know about “mew” (myoo) is that it’s a master of deceptive simplicity. With just one syllable, mew manages to function as both noun and verb, and it has eight—count ’em, EIGHT—definitions.

A master, I tell you.

See for yourself:

Kitten mewing by Ron Whisky via Wikimedia Commons

1. Perhaps the most obvious meaning of mew is the high-pitched vocalization of a kitty cat (which is interchangeable as noun and verb).

Photo by Tatyana via Wikimedia Commons

2. It also denotes the cajoling call of a seagull as well as …

Photo by Tim Rains, Denali National Park and Preserve, via Wikimedia Commons

3. the bird itself (namely, the Mew Gull).

Photo by CheepShot via Wikimedia Commons

4. A “mew” or “mews” is a cage for hawks, commonly used during molting to keep birds relaxed and secure.

Photo by Christine Matthews via Wikimedia Commons

5. It also means to molt.

Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons

6. In the UK, it’s used in plural form (mews) to refer to stables with living quarters or a row of apartments converted from stables.

Photo by Shravans14 via Wikimedia Commons

7. Similarly, a mew can name a place where one retires or hides.

Photo by Ian Paterson via Wikimedia Commons

8. And finally, behaving strictly as a verb, mew can mean to confine.

There’s a lot about mew that you never knew, true?

  1. Karlyne says:

    “I’m going to mew now.” I can’t wait to use that one!

  2. Winnie Nielsen says:

    Wow, this is the word of the day. I was only familiar with the usual Mew that comes from my Mr.Bump kitty. It is fascinating how the same words change from culture and regions. I understand that in Chinese, the same word changes depending on the tone. How confusing would that be!

  3. CJ Armstrong says:

    Very interesting! Thanks!

  4. bonnie ellis says:

    Mary Jane, you come up with the most interesting things.

  5. Nancy Coughlin says:

    Was not familiar with the bird references- those where all new. My reading of English novels had me familiar with the other meanings. How wonderful to have all these new uses for a simple little word. I too shall mew away for the rest of the evening.

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Here’s a fun word …


Maybe it’s someone who has a great sense of fun?


Maybe it’s someone who makes a study of fun? (Now there’s a great job!)

Or maybe it’s someone who thinks their particular skill or hobby is just plain fun?


Irina Tchachina by Deerstop via Wikimedia Commons

I sure hope so, because a funambulist is …

a tightrope walker!

Circus poster for Sells Floto Circus showing tight-rope walker Mlle. Beeson prancing with a parasol.

Not only do funambulists have a sense of fun, they also have nerves of steel. For example, funambulist Jay Cochrane set a world record in 1998 when he walked a distance of 800 feet between the towers of the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas, 300 feet above the city known for fun, and he did it … blindfolded.

Get ready to be amazed by this very talented funambulist from Ukraine’s Got Talent:


  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    What an amazing tight rope talent. I love watching everyone else watching her. We were all holding our breath!

  2. Karlyne says:

    I thought the definition was going to be: “One who walks a funicular.” Well, I was close…

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Ooooh, here’s a word for April …


Sounds more like “Oh!” … not “Ooooh.”


Why April?

Because April is a month filled with …


new beginnings,

and Easter eggs.

Still stumped?

Maybe the shape of the word will give you a clue …


Okay, maybe a visual is better …

Eggs. It’s all about eggs.

Oology is the branch of ornithology that studies birds’ eggs.

Here’s one for the record book: A giant “elephant bird” intact fossilized egg was sold at auction in 2013 for $101,813! Elephant birds were a kind of predecessor to the ostrich, living in Madagascar between the 13th and 17th centuries. The elephant bird egg was 120 times bigger than an average chicken egg … breakfast for a crowd.

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    And then there are those chocolate eggs that have the pastel sugar coatings around them! Just sayin…..

    • Cindi says:

      Yes, Winnie ~~ I have a degree in the study of those!

      There is always that little bit of excited wonder that comes over people when the discover a nest of eggs, isn’t there. It’s a universal love.

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