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Seeing double with "duplicate" and "reduplicate"

Recently, English Professor Anne Curzan was giving a talk in Washington about reduplication. In reduplication, a form is repeated in a straightforward way, like "no-no" or "boo-boo," or with a vowel change like "flip-flop" or "mish-mash."

During Curzan's talk, someone in the audience raised their hand and said, "You keep using the word 'reduplication.' Isn't that redundant? Why don't you just say 'duplication'?"

Fair question.

The answer is yes, reduplication is redundant. It is exactly synonymous with "duplication." They both mean to double or do something again.

Both of these words come into English from classical Latin in the 15th century. "Reduplication," which can mean the act of doubling over or folding, also shows up in anatomy or zoology, so it's not just a linguistics term.

Today, "reduplication" is almost entirely an academic term. When Curzan looked it up in databases, she found it shows up a lot in areas like art, philosophy, linguistics, and genetics. Outside of that, "duplication" seems to be the preference.

The prefix “re” in reduplication seems to have lost its meaning of “back” or “again.” This was lost even in the Latin from which English borrowed the term. It’s possible “re” is functioning as an intensifier, but we really don’t know.

"Reduplication" got us thinking about another seemingly redundant term: "redouble." When "redouble" first comes into English around the 15th century, it really did mean to "redouble."

Around this time, we see phrases like, "We doubled, and then redoubled." In other words, we did it four times. These days though, the meaning of "redouble" has been generalized as “to increase" or “to intensify.”

Are there other words that seem redundant to you? We've talked about "irregardless," "misunderestimate," and "dethaw" before. Can you think of others?


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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