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When, about 40 years ago, I first read the "Basic Annals of Xiang Yu (232-202 BC)" ( Xiàngyǔ běnjì 項羽本紀) in the The Scribe's Records (Shǐjì 史記, ca. 94), the foundation for the 24 official dynastic histories that followed it, I was struck by this sentence:   `Yúshì Xiàng wáng dà hū chí xià, Hàn jūn jiē pīmí, suì zhǎn Hàn yī jiāng.'「於是項王大呼馳下,漢軍皆披靡,遂斬漢一將。」("Then King Xiang shouted loudly and galloped down, causing all of the Han army [to flee] pell-mell, whereupon he cut down one of the Han generals".)

What struck me so powerfully was that the Chinese term pīmí 披靡 sounded (Old Sinitic [Zhengzhang reconstruction] /*pʰralʔ/ /*mralʔ/) very similar to and meant exactly the same thing as our expression "pell-mell".  I thought that surely there must be some connection between these two colorful expressions, one in Sinitic and one in European languages.  The problem was that the two were separated by seventeen centuries and thousands of miles.

[French pêle-mêle, from Old French pesle mesle, probably reduplication of mesle, imperative of mesler, to mix; see meddle.]

[C16: from Old French pesle-mesle, jingle based on mesler to meddle]

[1570–80; < Middle French pelemele, Old French pesle mesle, rhyming compound based on mesler to mix. See meddle]

[All three etymologies from The Free Dictionary]

So I just set that uncanny resemblance aside and did nothing with it.  But every time I read that passage from "Basic Annals of Xiang Yu" (I do it once a year with my students in First-year Literary Sinitic), I experience the same thrill of recognition.  This year, however, since I had a bit of extra time on my hands over the Thanksgiving break, I decided to look into the pīmí 披靡 || pell-mell parallel a bit more closely.

The first question I asked is whether, since "pell-mell" sounds like a colloquial expression, it might have been overlooked in written texts before the 16th century.  Don Ringe disabused me of that notion thus:

This is *exactly* the kind of thing *most* likely to arise by chance over and over.  No, I doubt very much that it's older than that.  There is a flood–and I do mean a flood, millions of words–of written English and French from the 14th century on (in French, from the 13th century on), and just about everything is recorded, including the most tabu words in both languages.  The odds that something in the spoken language didn't get recorded are nil.

All right, but I still needed to find an explanation — at least for myself — how a disyllabic colloquial term in Sinitic from the 1st c. BC and a colloquial expression in French from the 16th c. AD could sound  essentially the same and convey the same, highly specific idea.

I began to explore various avenues of inquiry and asked a number of colleagues how they would explain the origin and nature of "pell-mell".

Craig Melchert commented:

I frankly have no idea about this particular example, but there is no principled reason why it could not be much older. In addition to the problem you cite of such expressions often not appearing in the written record, there is the further tendency of historical linguists not to pursue the origins of such things. I attach one of the very last papers of Calvert Watkins (see towards the end on the "expressive" for pain/distress that appears in Hittite as a:i wa:i*), arguing that they should not be totally excluded from our purview. Of course, he could by that point in his career freely deal with such things–seniority does allow one more latitude.  I am also reminded of the thorough discussion by Mark R. V. Southern in his dissertation (published in 1999 as "Indo-European s-mobile and its Regeneration in Germanic") of the expressive (usually deprecatory) zero-s(c)h- pattern–a real example eludes me, but something like "eh, mighty-shmighty". The repeated initial labial stops in p-ell m-ell are certainly not accidental.

[*VHM:  Watkins mentions Yiddish "oy vey" in this context.  Compare the last two paragraphs of this post, and this comment, where I discuss the elemental nature of "oh, woe [is me]".]


  1. I will return to some of the points raised by Craig below.
  2. Especially striking is the deep Indo-European antiquity of words related to "woe" and phrases in the daughter languages derived from it.  Watkins regrets that the *u̯ai vocable is regrettably absent from his American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.
  3. I have a pdf copy of Watkins' paper if anyone is interested in reading it:

"Aspects of the 'Expressive Dimension' in Indo-European: Toward a Comparative Grammar of Speech Registers".  In Stephanie W. Jamison, H. Craig Melchert, and Brent Vine (eds.), Proceedings of the 24th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference (Bremen: Hempen, 2013), pp. 243–53.]

Bruce Brooks astutely remarked:

The p- has not been addressed. I recall George Kennedy’s comment (a propos Boodberg’s theory of dimidation in early Chinese) that we are not required to reconstruct *rpoly as the ancestor of roly-poly. One of the consonants in the reduplicative is likely to be secondary. In both this example and in pell-mell, I suspect it is the p-.

The device is at bottom playful, and the language of children, especially the abusive language of children, might perhaps with profit be observed, and considered. Such terms seem to be to some degree pejorative, even derogatory. As are diminutives generally.

There are also some apparently literary rhyming formulations that get into the language, eg willy-nilly. Ingenious adults also play, and must probably be considered. Nor is rhyme crucial: hunky-dory. What does seem to keep turning up is metrical, a 2+2 form (extended in higgledy-piggledy, but perhaps ancestrally present). Is the p- secondary here also, bringing in the additional idea of squalor? Or are the pigs etymological?

Many of these, at least the most familiar English ones, go back to poems, or even songs. Itsy-bitsy spider. Here I would suspect an etymological bit > bitsy (already made pejorative by the adding of the second syllable) plus deletion of the b- in the other element. the one which completes the metrical pattern.

Bruce closed his initial observations by quoting a line from a very old and very famous Chinese poem, the first in the Poetry Classic (Shījīng 詩經) (ca. 6th c. BC):

yǎotiǎo shūnǚ 窈窕淑女 ("a graceful and gentle maiden")

This speaks eloquently to Bruce's point — and there are many other comparable rhyming binoms in the Poetry Classic.

Chinese poetry and prose are replete with expressions of this sort.  They are called by different names:

liánmián cí 聯綿詞 / 連綿詞 ("rhyming / alliterative binoms"):  pípá 枇杷 ("loquat"), fǎngfú 彷彿 ("as if"), sèsuō 瑟縮 ("shrinking; cowering; curling up with cold")

diéyùn 疊韻 ("assonance"):  xiāoyáo 逍遙 ("carefree; be at ease (leisure); be free and unfettered; wander about at leisure" — this is one of my favorite words from the Zhuang Zi), chángyáng 徜徉 ("stroll about unhurriedly"), pánhuán盤桓 ("linger")

The latter is considered by some authorities to be a type of the former.

There are thousands of Sinitic rhyming binoms of this sort.  I have large dictionaries full of this type of expression.  Note that modern Chinese grammarians refer to them as single, disyllabic words (cí 詞), not two separate characters (zì 字).

Bruce later added the following:

In my part of Ohio, anyone wanting to coin an instant denigrative can do it on the other person’s name, often with w- in the second element. Thus if one wanted to put down someone named Victor, one might simply address him as “Vicky-wicky.” Very difficult to answer in actual conversation. It expresses something, but makes no actual statement. In the culture of my childhood, males did this only to males, not to other females, and I do not recall observing an instance between females. It is something of an invitation to fight; that is, it looks to, or at least does not preclude, a nonlinguistic response.

As for antiquity, don’t leave out hocus-pocus, derived from the already mystical Latin formula “hoc est corpus,” and denigrative for magic in general.

Also the affective reduplicatives describing stance and manner in Analects 10, which belong to a somewhat different category.

Martin Schwartz:  I can't say about the words at hand, but I do know of Iranian (Persian and Sogdian) and two-word rhyming phrases in which the second is a nonsense word in m-.  Cf. similar but ad lib phrases in Yiddish where the rhyming nonsense-word has shm-….  Johanna, I seem to remember some relevant pair in Caucasic where the second (?) is mætæl….

Johanna Nichols:  Martin, you have a great memory — it must be 30+ years ago since we discussed that word.  Yes, "hetal-metal" is a word for 'riddle' I've found in Chechen.  Neither word appears to be native to me (at least not the roots), so maybe it comes from Kumyk?  There are quite a few Turkic loanwords in Chechen, Avar, and other lowland East Caucasian languages.

Jerry Friedman mentions the Yiddish dismissive "ready-shmeady" construction in this comment.

Cf. Mark R. V. Southern, Contagious Couplings: Transmission of Expressives in Yiddish Echo Phrases, ch. 1 ("Binomial Dismissive Pairs in Yiddish"), p. 13:

Binomial dismissive pairs are one of Yiddish's most successfully entrenched and connotatively colorful loans into mainstream English. Marked by their productive X- shm- labial-initial doublet pattern (a sort of "movable shm-"), they are highly expressive:  derogatory, taboo-avoiding, or ironically playful.  Each pair presents a tight, verbless sentential unit.  These features transfer easily and productively into Yiddishized English:  for example, messy, shmessy 'messy: who cares!'

Such words may fit into a larger pattern of crosslinguistic phrase formation.  In this regard, Hiroshi Kumamoto refers to the well-established linguistic category of "echo-words":

First see Murray B. Emeneau's book Language and Linguistic Area (Stanford University Press, 1980), p. 9, where he talks about echo words with the second member beginning with m-.

I think Wilma Heston wrote about this kind of thing in "Some areal features: Indian or Irano-Indian", International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics, 9 (1980), 141–167.

For Thai, Jeffrey P. Williams, "A note on echo word morphology in Thai and the languages of South and South‐East Asia," Australian Journal of Linguistics, 11.1 (1991), 107-111.

For Persian, Don L. F. Nilsen, "Syntactic and Semantic Categories of Echo Words in Persian",  Iranian Studies, 5.2-3 (Spring – Summer, 1972), 88-95.

For Ethiopic, Wolf Leslau. "Echo-Words in Ethiopic" in Annales d'Ethiopie, Volume 4, année 1961, pp. 205-238.

For Turkish, G. L. Lewis, Turkish Grammar (Oxford 1967), p. 237f, gives plenty of examples of what he calls "m-doublets" (with the second member with m-).

[VHM:  I have pdfs of some of these articles]

Many words of this sort essentially convey the notion of "in a chaotic manner":


late 16th century: rhyming jingle, probably with reference to the irregular herding together of pigs


also late 16th c., perhaps from *skelt, Middle English skelten to hasten

Asko Parpola notes that such jingles exist in many languages:  "In Finnish, for instance, you have the counterpart of pêle-mêle: mullin mallin.  Another English example is the incantation used by conjurers, hocus-pocus [VHM:  also mentioned by Bruce Brooks above], which probably goes back to the Latin words of the holy communion, hoc est corpus meum.

Peter Golden observes that allakbullak can render "pell-mell" in Turkish.

I describe the essential orality of such expressions as those discussed here in this post:

"Sayable but not writable" (9/12/13)

When all is said and done, I still cannot help but think that pīmí 披靡 (OS /*pʰralʔ/ /*mralʔ/) and "pell-mell" are related by something more than pure coincidence.

[Thanks to John Huehnergard, Chau Wu, Frank Southworth, and Abraham Chan]


  1. Fionnbharr Ó Duinnín said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    Isn't it that this a lot of this falls under the field of reduplication in language.

    As it happens, yesterday I was searching for how to translate "hotchpotch" into a few other languages in ways that tried to capture the internal rhyme, with varying degrees of success:

    en: hodgepodge, hotchpotch, mishmash
    ga: prácás, meascán (mearaí), manglam
    tr: türlü, ıvır zıvır, karman çorman, karmakarışıklık
    hu: katyvasz, hablaty, összevisszaság
    es: pepitoria, morondanga, mezcolanza, batiburrillo
    fr: méli-mélo, pêle-mêle, salmigondis, mélange, fourre-tout, fatras

  2. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    And there's German Sim-sala-bim for words to conjure with.

  3. Fred said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

    This comment exists entirely because despite some interesting diversions, no progress has been made in the search yet beyond the initial postulation of a relation and I'd like to have the thing email me when something happens in this curious case.

  4. DWalker07 said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

    Pell-mell seems to connote speed or "hurriedness". How do you get from "meddle" to "fast"?

  5. sv said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

    More examples of playful reduplication signifying chaos:

    German "Wirrwarr" – chaos, confusion; where "wirr" means confused, confusing, unordered etc. and "warr" has no discernible lexical meaning.

    Biblical Hebrew "Tohu wa-bohu", signifying the state of the world before god created order.

  6. Y said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

    Cross-linguistically, it seems common for the formulaic onset in the second half of this kind of compound to be bilabial (p-, m-), to include a bilabial (shm-), or at least a labiodental (f-).

  7. Rosie Redfield said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

    We often cannot help but think that an observed similarity is due to history, not chance, but what this analysis really needs is a probability analysis. Given the numbers syllables available in English and in Chinese, what is the probability that the same meaning would, by chance, be associated with the same two syllables in each language. This will be quite a small number, but we need to multiply it by the large number of words available for such a coincidence.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 5:16 pm


    We won't e-mail you, but you're welcome to come back and look. The discussion is ongoing, and progress is being made.

  9. chris said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 5:33 pm

    what is the probability that the same meaning would, by chance, be associated with the same two syllables in each language
    Similar syllables — unless there's unwritten "l"'s in "pīmí". I can't speak to how similar the vowels are; to me "pell-mell" rhymes with "bell" (twice) but I don't know much about Chinese vowels except that there are a lot of them that are distinct to people who understand Chinese and baffling to people who don't.

    The difficulty of defining "similar" is going to make a probability analysis hard to calculate, even before introducing the complicating factor of the two syllables not being independent. But I tend to think that when you consider the huge number of words in both languages, *some* purely coincidental matches aren't really that surprising. Even more so if you're subconsciously applying a kind of auditory pareidolia to "find" the similarities.

  10. peterv said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

    There's also the Hawaiian:

    wackawacka hunakuna

  11. Rubrick said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

    All this sounds sensible except for Don Ringe's statement: The odds that something in the spoken language didn't get recorded are nil. Nil? Really? So he'd presumably be willing to wager large sums on that?

    Even today, when the amount of written text generated is probably several orders of magnitude larger than during the time in question, the amount of speech is far higher. I would in fact assert the opposite of Ringe's claim: the odds that everything in the spoken language got recorded are [very nearly] nil.

  12. JK said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 6:28 pm

    "Playful reduplication symbolizing chaos" reminds me of Gog and Magog or Yajuj and Majuj. Apparently the names may have originated from Central Asian Turkic tribes, which makes one wonder if they also made their way to China.

    I'm not sure how playful the word Taotie was, but they also seemed capable of bringing disaster.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

    Similar syllables — unless there's unwritten "l"'s in "pīmí".

    There's not now, but there may have been 3000 years ago. That's the point of including an Old Chinese reconstruction. I wonder what the Baxter/Sagart version is… their system doesn't let syllables end in -l, IIRC.

    The vowels are both "ee" today, but, again, they weren't 3000 years ago. The marks on top of the vowel letters indicate the tones, which are a more recent phenomenon as well, having developed from certain features of the beginnings and ends of syllables: the level tone of the first syllable is simply the default in the absence of disturbances, the rising tone (think "inbuilt question mark") of the second comes from the fact that the sound [m] is voiced (in the absence of further disturbances), so, yes, the two syllables used to rhyme precisely.

  14. Louis said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 1:58 am

    @David Marjanović:
    There is no entry for 披 pī in the book (Old Chinese, A New Reconstruction), however there is:
    靡  mǐ *m(r)ajʔ
    皮 pí  *m-[p](r)aj

    So yes, effectively no *-l ending.

  15. phspaelti said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 5:36 am

    @Rubrick: You are misunderstanding what Ringe is claiming. Of course many things are never recorded. But he is talking about the history of individual words, in this case, a word which would have remained a part of the language since IE times in constant use, and yet never recorded. Since time is long and the vocabulary of any language are few, the odds are indeed small that they are not recorded.

  16. phspaelti said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 5:43 am

    @Dan Lufkin: "Simsalabim" is a variant of the famous "sim-sim" which is the origin of Aladdin's "sesame" in "Open Sesame". In addition it seems to have acquired two things typical of such forms (1) a 'Pig-Latin-like' (really a 'Chicken-language-like') -ala- in the middle, and (2) a dissimilation again involving a labial [b].

  17. Rodger C said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 7:44 am

    JK: Gog and Magog are from the Biblical book of Ezekiel.

  18. JK said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 8:34 am

    @Rodger C
    I brought up Gog and Magog/Yajuj and Majuj because they are so similar and are culturally powerful concepts that likely arose long before the Bible/Quran, so there may be a chicken and egg scenario with them as well. Similar to Prof. Mair's question here, they are a concept that could possibly have been introduced to China at some point due to their Central Asian Turkic connections.

  19. Bessel Dekker said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 9:16 am

    I must disagree with SV that in "Wirrwarr", -warr has no lexical meaning. At the root lies a verb which in Germanic languages may be "wirren", "warren", or "werren". (That -r again!) Dutch has the -a-, German has the -i-. So this is reduplication in form as well as in meaning. Alternatively, it might be viewed as ablaut.

    Indonesian/Javanese, incidentally, have a similar phenomenon. One example is "bolak balik" (lit. 'back and back', hence 'back and forth, to and fro'): the vowel pattern seems to be, typically, CoCaC CaCiC.

  20. Gunnar H said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 11:28 am

    It occurred to me that in addition to these reduplications that vary the initial consonant, there's a large class of words that vary the vowel (e.g. "riffraff", "flim-flam", "crisscross", "pish posh", "flip-flop", "pitter patter"). Of course, on looking it up it turns out the various classes of rhyming words were noticed and categorized long ago (by Jespersen, according to this article), along with the tendency to use an i-sound in the first part, though I can't tell whether the difference between rhyme types is at all significant.

    In Norwegian these terms are known as ekko-ord ("echo words"), and are quite numerous, along with many fixed rhyming expressions. In addition to familiar loanwords from other languages (e.g. piknikk "picnic", jetsett "jet set" or sikksakk "zig zag" from French, English and German), here are some that may be indigenous to or at least best known from Scandinavia:

    skalte og valte (to rule or administer arbitrarily) – from skalte "to lead" (now rare), and probably forvalte "to administer"
    ditt og datt ("this and that", random things) – from Low German dit un dat, literal meaning fairly opaque in Norwegian
    klabb og babb (disorder, commotion) – possibly from klabb "clump", but semantic link unclear
    hulter til bulter (in disorder) – from Low German
    pikkpakk or pikk og pakk (stuff, loose property, particularly if useless) – from pakk, something packed
    ting og tang (stuff) – from ting ("things")
    hipp som happ (randomly, something that makes no difference) – according to the dictionary from Low German hippen ("to hop"), though a connection to OE hap "chance" seems equally likely to me
    snikksnakk (nonsense talk) – from snakk "talk"
    rett og slett (simply, plainly) – expression originally from German schlecht und recht, with meaning transparent from the components rett ("straight", "correct") and slett ("smooth", "plain")
    ros og ris (positive and negative criticism) – directly from ros ("praise") and ris ("spanking")
    sus og dus (the good life, luxury) – from Swedish dialectal dus ("noise"), originally referring to boisterous partying
    Huttiheita (somewhere far from civilization) – apparently originally referring to Tahiti: Otaheiti > hutta heiti > hutti heita. In its final form, it also somewhat resembles the phrase "Hvor i huleste heiteste [helvete]?" ("Where in the most cavernous, hottest [hell]?"), meaning "Where the heck?"
    gakkgakk (rubber duck) – babytalk for kvakk kvakk ("quack quack")

  21. Jongseong Park said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

    Korean has a wealth of expressive vocabulary using reduplicative forms:

    갈팡질팡 galpangjilpang 'wandering at a loss'
    싱글벙글 singgeulbeonggeul 'smiling'
    싱숭생숭 singsungsaengsung 'scatterbrained'
    아기자기 agijagi 'little things looking good together'
    아롱다롱 arongdarong 'colourful'
    아웅다웅 aungdaung 'bickering'
    알록달록 allokdallok 'colourful'
    알쏭달쏭 alssongdalssong 'unclear, baffling'
    알콩달콩 alkongdalkong 'harmonious'
    엄벙덤벙 eombeongdeombeong 'thoughtlessly floundering'
    오밀조밀 奧密稠密 omiljomil 'fine and detailed'
    오순도순 osundosun 'amiable'
    옥신각신 oksingaksin 'squabbling'
    옹기종기 onggijonggi 'uneven and diverse'
    우물쭈물 umuljjumul 'hesitant'
    울고불고 ulgobulgo 'crying out loud'
    울긋불긋 ulgeutbulgeut 'mix of different shades'
    울퉁불퉁 ultungbultung 'bumpy'
    티격태격 tigyeoktaegyeok 'bickering'
    허겁지겁 heogeopjigeop 'rushed'
    허둥지둥 heodungjidung 'rushed'

    My quick translations don't do a good job of conveying the shades of meaning. A few of these have transparent etymologies, e.g. 울고불고 ulgobulgo 'crying out loud', a combination of 울고 ulgo and 불고 bulgo, the conjunction forms of 울다 ulda 'to cry' and 불다 bulda 'to blow'. I haven't included other such transparent combinations (e.g. 오락가락 orakgarak 'flipflopping' from 오다 oda 'to come' and 가다 gada 'to go', 들락날락 deullak-nallak 'in and out' from 들다 deulda 'to enter' and 나다 nada 'to exit', and 붉으락푸르락 bulgeurakpureurak 'red and blue, the colour one supposedly turns when livid' from 붉다 bukda 'to be red' and 푸르다 pureuda 'to be blue').

    오밀조밀 奧密稠密 omiljomil 'fine and detailed' is apparently Sino-Korean, but I don't know if it was borrowed from a Sinitic language or if it is an original Sino-Korean coinage.

    @Fionnbharr Ó Duinnín: One Korean translation for 'hotchpotch' could be 뒤죽박죽 dwijukbakjuk.

  22. Christian Weisgerber said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 3:19 pm

    @Gunnar H:
    Some more of your Scandinavian examples have equivalents in German and may be borrowings or calques:

    skalte og valte (to rule or administer arbitrarily)

    German: schalten und walten

    snikksnakk (nonsense talk)

    German: Schnickschnack < Low German

  23. liuyao said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 3:34 pm

    The examples of lianmian ci given can all be classified as 雙聲, which literally means double (initial) consonant, i.e. alliteration. It contrasts with assonance 疊韻, though some words can be both (e.g. zhanzhuan 輾轉).

  24. Gunnar H said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

    @Christian Weisgerber:

    Yeah, there are so many words shared (as original cognates or borrowings) between Scandinavian and German – Low German in particular – that a lot of these expressions just transfer directly. So even if they came from German they seem perfectly native in their construction (though the components of "skalte og valte" are obscure enough that I should have realized it wasn't coined locally).

    Are there any known cases of nonsense reduplications giving rise to new words? In Norwegian "svinse og svanse" as well as either svinse or svanse on their own all mean pretty much the same thing (to move around in a restless, indecisive or overly coquettish manner, to flutter). Svanse is apparently the original form. But it'd be more interesting if the new word had a more distinct meaning.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 9:34 pm

    I would have thought pall-mall (a now obsolete game ancestral to cricket, which gave its name to a well-known street in London which in turn passed the name on to a well-known brand of cigarette) was a variant of pell-mell, but According To The Internet they have totally different etymologies.

    Then there's the intriguingly-named municipality of Flin Flon, Manitoba (perhaps best known in the region around UPenn as the hometown of Flyers legend Bobby Clarke), which sounds remarkably like "flim flam," but According To The Internet originated as a clipped form of a character from a science fiction novel that was apparently a favorite of the fellow who started up the mine around which the town grew.

    Now, maybe a certain basic pattern of how these reduplicated things work means that expressions that start from different places etymologically will feel pressure to converge on a particular prosodic pattern and thus end up looking more similar than they started out.

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 9:35 pm

    Correction: "ancestral to cricket" should have read "ancestral to croquet."

  27. Tom said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 10:25 pm

    @Victor Mair: A really useful study of such echoic binoms in English is Nils Thun, "Reduplicative Words in English: A Study of Formations of the Type Tick-tick, Hurly-burly, and Shilly-shally " (Uppsala, 1963), recommended to me by David Knechtges. I made a PDF version and am happy to send it your way if you're interested.

  28. James Wimberley said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    Baby talk is very often reduplicative, from the very start: mama, papa/dada, caca, etc. So there may be a genetically inspired aesthetic preference. Alternatively, could there be a short-term muscle memory that simply makes is easier to repeat a recently formed sound?

    Hypothesis: the template is full reduplication, as in baby talk. This is rather limited, and second best is partial reduplication, by vowel assonance or consonant alliteration.

  29. Andrew Usher said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

    J. W. Brewer –

    Pall-mall and pell-mell actually were confused historically, but seem to have separated again. The former was often given the pronunciation of the latter in Britain into the last century, but now is spelling-pronounced (?) with TRAP. Natural evolution would presumably have given 'Paul maul' as I believe the cigarettes are called.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  30. Victor Mair said,

    November 30, 2016 @ 9:39 pm

    From Chau Wu:

    Regarding 披靡, which you think may be related to *pell-*mell, I must say I am impressed by your gut instinct. [In neuroscience and pharmacology, it is well known that a second nervous system resides in our guts – the enteric nervous system – which is our second brain. Hence, the colloquial expressions such as “gut instinct”, “gut feeling”, and “have the guts or gall” (= courage), may have some truth in them.]

    I took your *pell-*mell as a first step, and hypothesized they might be doublets that may have resulted from declustering of an initial cluster of a supposedly original *mpell-. From there I further thought that the latter may have been an aphetic form of *Vmpell-, with the V being a vowel. Out of the five vowels, my gut instinct suggested that it could be an *i-. So I reconstructed *impello-.

    Latin impellō (inf. impellere) means ‘to push, drive, or strike against; to give push to anything tottering, drive on, impel’ (Smith and Lockwood’s dictionary); ‘to throw to the ground, [especially as military technical term] to make to yield, to rout’ (Cassell’s).

    So there you have it: L impellō > *mpellō > (declustering) > *pello– ; mello– > 披靡 (lit. ) 'fall to the ground'; 'to rout'.

    As a support of the hypothesis, we can point to L pellis (> E pelt) ‘a skin, animal hide’ that corresponds to Tw phê 皮 (MSM ) ‘skin, hide’, which serves as a phonophore for 披. Furthermore, L pellītus ‘clad in skins’ (> *pell-) corresponds to Tw phi 披 ‘to clad, spread (a cover over something)’, e.g., 披掛 phi-kòa ‘to clad’, 披風 phi-hong ‘an overcoat’, 披肩 phi-kian ‘a shawl’, 披開 ‘to spread’.

  31. Gunnar H said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 3:34 am

    If the Old French form was pesle mesle, could the first half have anything to do with "pestle," which is apparently from Old French pestel? "Crush and mix" seems like a plausible semantic pair. (Of course, pestel is a noun not a verb, and I have no idea how similar the pronunciations would have been back then.)

  32. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 9:34 am

    Gunnar H wrote:

    Huttiheita (somewhere far from civilization) – apparently originally referring to Tahiti: Otaheiti > hutta heiti > hutti heita.

    Swedish has Otahejti "somewhere far away", also with etymological spelling Otaheiti, and Tjotahejti with an obscure initial added*. Wiktionary lists an obsolete variant Hotahejti.

    * Sw. tj is [ɕ].

  33. Rubrick said,

    December 1, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    While I hesitate to dismiss these etymologies willy-nilly as pure flim-flam, they seem at best wishy-washy. Quit flip-flopping and get down to the nitty-gritty! Should be easy-peasy, right?

  34. David Marjanović said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 8:53 pm

    So yes, effectively no *-l ending.

    Thanks! I found out meanwhile that 1) the Baxter-Sagart reconstruction indeed doesn't have any final *-l; 2) it systematically has final *-j [j] instead, which is preserved today (I suppose as part of diphthongs) in dialects like that of Wēnzhōu, of which Zhèngzhāng Shàngfāng is a native speaker. If I remember that right, it was already gone from Middle Chinese.

    In neuroscience and pharmacology, it is well known that a second nervous system resides in our guts – the enteric nervous system – which is our second brain. Hence, the colloquial expressions such as “gut instinct”, “gut feeling”, and “have the guts or gall” (= courage), may have some truth in them.

    This is the kind of annoying quarter-truth exemplified by "Einstein said we only use 10 % of our brain".

    Sure, there's lots and lots of nerve cells in the guts. But they're sensoric and motoric nerve cells, occupied with keeping peristalsis going. You have one cell that takes sensoric input from the gut, one cell that sends motoric output to the muscle layer of the gut, and maybe one cell in between. That's very different from the brain! Most brain cells are only connected to other brain cells. The brain is mostly occupied with itself. This makes all the computational complexity possible.

    I remember this from an introductory lecture into neurobiology for first-semester students of molecular biology.

    While I'm at it, we may only be using 10 % of the brain at once… but using more of it at the same time wouldn't be an improvement. It would be an epileptic seizure.

    I took your *pell-*mell as a first step, and hypothesized they might be doublets that may have resulted from declustering of an initial cluster of a supposedly original *mpell-.

    What? How so? And in what language?

    From there I further thought that the latter may have been an aphetic form of *Vmpell-, with the V being a vowel. Out of the five vowels, my gut instinct suggested that it could be an *i-. So I reconstructed *impello-.

    That's not a reconstruction. It's a guess following a guess following another guess. It's hardly even testable.

    Latin impellō

    Ah, but Latin ll isn't some sort of cosmetic device that could be safely ignored. It's a long consonant the same way that ō is a long vowel.

    The French and therefore English expression isn't derived from (im)pellere, as shown by the s in the Old French. The Old Sinitic expression can't be derived from it either even if we ignore geography & stuff and assume (ad hoc!) some kind of metathesis for [l] and [r] or whatever: Old Sinitic was perfectly happy with [mp] clusters at the beginnings of words, indeed it had a prefix *[m] that formed volitional verbs out of other verbs, and – as chance would have it – pellere as well as impellere certainly are volitional. It wouldn't have needed to do any crazy doubling of the word to dissolve the cluster – we'd simply get a b in Middle Sinitic.

    It's not like "pell-mell" is some kind of Eurasian universal. German lacks it, for starters.

    Furthermore, L pellītus ‘clad in skins’ (> *pell-) corresponds to Tw phi 披 ‘to clad, spread (a cover over something)’, e.g., 披掛 phi-kòa ‘to clad’, 披風 phi-hong ‘an overcoat’, 披肩 phi-kian ‘a shawl’, 披開 ‘to spread’.

    Clad is a past participle, and so is pellītus (from a verb pellīre, real or imagined). Is the claim that a Latin past participle (or simply adjective) was borrowed as a verb into Taiwanese, which picked the initial consonant and the long vowel, aspirated the consonant out of nowhere, and threw the rest away?

    That's not what "correspond" means.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 12:29 am

    From Martin Schwartz:

    Recently I learned two more examples. An ethnomusicologicall acquaintance reported that an East Armenian musician deprecated
    the cliché routine broad sort of Caucasian music, saying "I'm not interested in Kafkaz mafkaz". Also, in Modern Greek katares (pl. of katara 'curse'
    < katá + ára) yields slang áres máres. Best Christmas Mistmas greetings, Martin Schmartin

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