Monday, August 6, 2018

Readers Write

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Sue P sent me an email which asked simply “Hi Otto! Why do we say higgledy-piggledy? Where did that expression come from?” 

Looking into it, some interesting items came up: 
  • The expression means confused, disordered, hurriedly. 
  • The first time that 'higgledy-piggledy' appears in print is in the first edition of John Florio's English/Italian dictionary A Worlde of Wordes, 1598: “Snatchingly, higledi-pigledie, shiftingly.” 
  • It is believed that the word originated from an association with pigs, probably from their mess and disorder, and that it was originally higly-pigly. 
  • The Oxford English Dictionary offers that the word probably has something to do with “the disorderly and irregular fashion in which a herd of pigs huddle together”. Nathaniel Hawthorne used that image in his American Notebooks: “Pigs, on a march, do not subject themselves to any leader among themselves, but pass on, higgledy-piggledy, without regard to age or sex”. 
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  • Repeat paired words are known to linguists as reduplicative compounds, sometimes also called ricochet words or vocal gestures. These paired words differ either only in a vowel (tittle-tattle, tick-tock, pitter-patter, mish-mash, shilly-shally) or a consonant (hoity-toity, lovey-dovey, helter-skelter, argy-bargy, pell-mell, and the nitty-gritty). 
  • The words used are called dactyls, where there is a stressed syllable followed by one or more unstressed syllables. The word dactyl comes from the Greek word for finger, with thye joints representing the syllables. 
  • Examples of single reduplication dactyl expressions are 'helter-skelter', 'harum-scarum', 'raggle-taggle', ‘hanky-panky’, ‘mumbo-jumbo’, ‘namby-pamby’ and 'hurly-burly'. 
  • Double dactyl expressions in that vein consist of words with three syllables where the stress is on the first syllable, such as ‘higgledy-piggledy’. 
  • In a 1967 book entitled Jiggery Pokery, American poets Anthony Hecht and John Hollander developed a double dactyl form of poetry. Not everyone is a fan. 
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson is written in double dactyl format: 
Half a league, half a league, 
Half a league onward, 
All in the valley of Death 
Rode the six hundred. 
“Forward, the Light Brigade! 
Charge for the guns!” he said. 
Into the valley of Death 
Rode the six hundred. 

“Forward, the Light Brigade!” 
Was there a man dismayed? 
Not though the soldier knew 
Someone had blundered. 
Theirs not to make reply, 
Theirs not to reason why, 
Theirs but to do and die. 
Into the valley of Death 
Rode the six hundred. 
  1. The following poem is not only double dactyl, it also uses the term higgledy-piggledy:’ 
Higgledy Piggledy 

- Poem by John Hollander 

Higgledy piggledy, 
Benjamin Harrison, 
Twenty-third president 
Was, and, as such, 

Served between Clevelands and 
Save for this trivial 
Idiosyncrasy, 
Didn't do much. 

(Benjamin Harrison succeeded Grover Cleveland as President of the US who defeated Harrison 4 years later. Scholars and historians generally regard Harrison’s administration as below-average and rank him in the bottom half among US Presidents.) 

  • Another:
Yuletide Double Dactyl 

- Poem by Harley White 

Whirlingly swirlingly 
Christmastime Holiday 
Seasons the greetings that 
Wish us good cheer 

Plus more than ever a 
Celebratorily 
Merry Noel and a 
Happy New Year! 
  • An original double dactyl"
Higgledy Piggledy
Byter Sue P 
Knew not the start of 
The phrase and asked me. 

Pigs! I said to her. 
That’s from whence it has come. 
Here’s some poems, 
Now we are done.


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