Why We Don’t Chat Chit About Flop Flips

In English, adjectives typically come before the nouns they modify — e.g. “large cat,” not “cat large.” That rule is generally well known and easily articulated and is even likely taught in school. But what’s less well known — and typically not explicitly taught — is that adjectives typically follow an order among themselves. That is, native English speakers tend to intuitively order adjectives the same way despite not having been formally taught any rules on how to do so. In the book The Elements of Eloquence, author Mark Forsyth explains:

[A]djectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before color, green great dragons can’t exist.

It really is something we take for granted. For example, take the children’s tale “Little Red Riding Hood” — she not “Red Little Riding Hood, as “size” has to come before “color.” And similarly, it’s the story of a good little girl going to her grandmother’s house, not of a little good girl doing the same — “opinion” has to come before “size”. The rule works — and all the time.

Well, almost all the time.

Forsyth’s book came out in 2013 but it went viral three years later when a New York Times writer named Matthew Anderson tweeted the paragraph above. Amused social media mavens shared the tweet more than 50,000 times because it’s almost always true, and because they almost never realized it beforehand. But some of those 50,000 noticed a problem. Take another look at the second Little Red Riding Hood example. She’s a “good little girl,” right? So, what about the Big Bad Wolf? Given the rules above, the antagonist of that same story should be the “bad big wolf” — but he isn’t. Why does the “opinion-size” part of the rule work for Riding Hood but fail for the Wolf?

The short answer, as Forsyth explains, is another rule — one which takes priority over the one Anderson quoted.

That rule pairs with something called “ablaut reduplication.” Reduplication means, simply, that we take one sound and repeat it. You can probably think of a few examples, but if not: trains go “choo choo,” kids go “pee-pee,” and at times, we depart with a “bye-bye.” Reduplication doesn’t require that all the sounds in the root word be repeated, though; while those three terms are examples of “exact reduplication,” there are other versions as well. “Ablaut” refers to a change in vowels and therefore, “ablaut reduplication” is when most of the word is the same but the vowel changes. Here’s a short list of some examples:

pitter patter
hip hop
ding dong
jibber jabber
badda-bing, badda-bang, badda-boom

By and large, those are nonsense words which, reduplicated with a vowel change, become something meaningful. Flip the order of the reduplicated words, though, and they’re nonsense yet again. You don’t zagzig through a crowd. Frere Jacques’ morning bells don’t go dong dang ding. And Mr. T really ain’t got time for no jabber jibber. It all makes sense in our heads, for some reason.

And if you look carefully, you’ll see a ruleset within those terms. The word with “i” comes first, followed by the one with “a” and then with “o” in the rear — this happens 100% of the time. Take a totally nonsense word — let’s say “glank,” to literally make up a word — and apply ablaut reduplication. “Glink glank” sounds right, “glank glink” sounds off. This rule, unlike the adjective-ordering one, is immutable — and therefore, it applies to proper nouns, too. As a result, we have tic tacs, King Kong, and yes, the Big Bad Wolf.

Why do we do this? We don’t know. Forsyth, writing for the BBC, noted that this is the “subject of endless debate among linguists” with no satisfying explanation to date. But, he points out, maybe the “why” doesn’t matter: “English is largely made up of the rules we don’t know that we know,” and yet, that hasn’t stopped us from chit-chatting with one another.

Bonus fact: If you like the game ping pong (not pong ping, by the way), then hopefully you weren’t a student at Georgetown University in 2008. In an effort to curtail drinking, the school decided to ban beer pong. (If you’re not familiar with the game, here’s the Wikipedia entry, but the important part is that it uses ping pong balls.) But they didn’t stop at just banning the game — per Time magazine, the school also banned having “inordinate numbers of Ping-Pong balls [ . . . ] in its on-campus dorms.”

From the Archives: Oneteen and Twoteen: Where do “eleven” and “twelve” come from?