H-b expressions

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Yesterday, I was thinking of words to express "commotion", "(noisy) disturbance", etc.  "Hustle bustle" and "hurly burly" quickly came to mind.  Thinking analogically, "hubbub" also presented itself for consideration.  Tangentially, "hullabaloo", "hoopla", "hoo-ha", and, through a process of inversion, "ballyhoo" and "brouhaha" also tagged along, but were less convincing as support for a thesis that was swiftly emerging.  Namely, "h-b" words seem to be naturally configured for expressing an energetic state of affairs full of movement and din.

Normally, I'm not a fan of sound symbolism as an adequate explanation for the origin of words (see Readings below).  But, in the case of "hustle bustle", "hurly burly", and "hubbub", I began to wonder what was going on to generate such a cluster of terms with similar sounds and meanings.

The reason I decided to write this post was to elicit evidence from readers as to whether the co-occurrence of "h-b" in duplicative expressions also occurs in other languages.


[Thanks to Nicholas Tursi]


  1. Genevieve Hilton said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 9:42 am

    In Vietnamese there is lung tung, linh tinh, etc.

  2. Robert Coren said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 9:42 am

    Well, on the other hand, there's foofaraw.

  3. Genevieve Hilton said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 9:43 am

    In Vietnamese: linh tinh, lung tung, etc.

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 9:52 am

    I don't know if there's anything special about the "h-b-" sequence, as it's part of a larger phenomenon of reduplicated "h-" forms suggesting chaos or recklessness. Here's an excerpt of a column I wrote for the Wall St. Journal last year on "helter-skelter":

    Though etymologists have not been able to trace the exact origins of the word, it resembles other rhyming pairs with similar connotations of throwing caution to the wind, such as “hurry-scurry” and “harum-scarum.” Known as “rhyming reduplication,” this repetitive pattern is often used in English to suggest haphazard or confusing behavior: Think of “higgledy-piggledy,” “herky-jerky,” “hodge-podge,” “hugger-mugger,” and “hurly-burly.” (For some reason, words starting with “h” sound especially reckless.)

    See also this page by Hal Schiffman collecting comments (including mine) responding to his 1999 Linguist List query about "echo-word reduplication."

  5. Yvonne said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 9:57 am

    In German we also find some lexicalised rhyme reduplications: Heckmeck 'fuss', Kuddelmuddel 'jumble', Holterdiepolter 'helter-skelter', Hokuspokus 'hocus-pocus', Techtelmechtel 'love affair', Klimbim 'junk', Larifari, Remmidemmi 'hurly-burly', ruckzuck = ratzfatz 'in no time', Schickimicki. (Sorry I can't translate some of them.) It seems that bilabials are common as initials of the reduplicated part, but at the moment I can't think of an "h-b"-example.

  6. Yuval said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 10:01 am

    I think you can add "hanky-panky" to that list.

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 10:13 am

    @Yuval: Indeed. And now I've dug up a useful Mr. Verb post from 2007 that covers both "h-b-" and "h-p-" reduplicative forms. That links to a Linguist List discussion of the prevalence of "labial-initial reduplicants" (/p/ or /b/ as the initial consonant of the second element in a reduplication). So "h-b-" and "h-p-" forms may draw on two sound-symbolic patterns, one for the "h-" and one for the labial follow-up.

  8. Ro said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 10:13 am

    Hiruk-pikuk in Indonesian is similar to hubbub and definitely on the commotion scale. Indonesian p is in between English b and p.

  9. Xerîb said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 10:23 am

    There is a Hebrew etymology for brouhaha, accepted for example by the Trésor and by the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch:


  10. bks said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 10:24 am

    "hobnob" "hocus-pocus" "hokey-pokey"

  11. cameron said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 11:12 am

    It doesn't quite fit the pattern, but "tohubohu" fits the semantic domain.

  12. Francisco said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 11:17 am

    In Portuguese I cannot recall any hyphenated h-b expressions. There are however these popular idioms:

    "sem eira nem beira"
    "alhos por bugalhos"

    ('eira' and 'alhos' are voiced as if preceded by an aspirated h).

    Similar alliterations employing other phonemes:
    "useiro e vezeiro"
    "aos trancos e barrancos"
    "prometer mundos e fundos"
    "bater as botas"

  13. Heidi Renteria said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 11:54 am

    And there's "hubba hubba."

  14. Gabriel Holbrow said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

    Japanese has an easily recognizable, and frequently used, reduplicative pattern that often expresses something like a plural. For example, there is 時々 (tokidoki), the reduplication of 時 (toki) meaning "time", where the reduplicant term is means something like "from time to time" or "sometimes". Usually the pattern is that the reduplicated part simply changes the initial consonant from unvoiced to voiced, as in the tokidoki example. Reduplicants based on a lexical item that starts with /h/ like 人々 (hitobito) "people" from 人 (hito) "person", do not seem to fit that usual pattern, until you remember that most (or all?) instances of /h/ in modern Japanese were /p/ historically.

    So, the question about reduplicants that specifically follow the "h-b" pattern has an interesting for answer for Japanese (that they are part of a regular and familiar pattern), even though the reason for that answer is unique to the history of Japanese and likely not relevant to other languages.

  15. Belial Issimo said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

    Fr. [i]charivari[/i] fits the pattern with the reasonable substitution of /h/ for /ʃ/.

  16. bgermain said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

    "hot and bothered" "huff and puff" "post-haste" "Peel's 'view, halloo!' "

  17. Walter said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 12:17 pm

    Also "hullabaloo".

  18. Roscoe said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 12:18 pm

    Hugga wugga!


  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 2:04 pm

    "Hoity-toity" has a non-labial start to the second half and also is hard to fit into the chaos/disorder category. Maybe in English "h" is just uniquely good for first halves of this sort of rhyming thing regardless of the semantics or other phonemes involved?

  20. Trogluddite said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 2:28 pm

    The mutation of the Muslim Muharram chant "Yā Ḥasan! Yā Ḥosain!" into "Hobson Jobson" may also hint that English speakers (at least) have a liking for h-b forms. Hell's Bells, what a strange palaver!

  21. Trogluddite said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 2:31 pm

    @J W Brewer
    Given that many English speakers drop their aitches, could we say that leading vowels might be part of the same pattern? (e.g. itsy-bitsy, arty-farty.)

  22. mark dowson said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 4:54 pm

    You could add "Hells Bells", "Hot Potato" (in the slang sense) and perhaps even "Hill Billy"

  23. philip said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 6:08 pm

    in Irish we have:

    hurlamaboc, m. (gs. ~). Commotion, uproar; noise of chase.

  24. Ethan said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 6:52 pm

    Could this explain the connotation of "rabble" attached to "hoi polloi"?

  25. Narmitaj said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 7:15 pm

    Hubble Bubble… even discounting the misremembered (including by me) Macbeth line "Hubble bubble, boil and trouble" (it is in fact "Double, double"), there is the popular name for the Middle Eastern watery smoking device the hookah, which as a kid in Lebanon I remember being called a Hubbly Bubbly.

    While I am here, the original post's reference to "ballyhoo" and "brouhaha" reminded me of the 1981 King Crimson song "Elephant Talk", which was basically an A,B,C,D and E of talk words. The B&C sections go:

    Talk, it's only talk
    Babble, burble, banter, bicker bicker bicker
    Brouhaha, balderdash, ballyhoo
    It's only talk
    Back talk
    Talk talk talk, it's only talk

    Comments, cliches, commentary, controversy
    Chatter, chit-chat, chit-chat, chit-chat,
    Conversation, contradiction, criticism
    It's only talk
    Cheap talk

    It seems like a prediction of much online activity (present company excepted) some years before the fact. You can see 1981-era Crimson (Fripp, Belew, Levin, Bruford) perform the song on TV show Fridays here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTQrlDzqUCA

  26. Scott P. said,

    April 5, 2019 @ 10:08 pm

    One more that could be added is "Hinky Dinky" as in the song "Mademoiselle from Armentiéres".

  27. phanmo said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 1:12 am

    French has "hurluberlu", which is a person who acts in an eccentric, extravagant manner.

  28. Michael Watts said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 4:01 am

    Could this explain the connotation of "rabble" attached to "hoi polloi"?

    No, that comes from the meaning of the word.

  29. DBMG said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 7:10 am

    Finnish has the "Georgie Porgie" style nursery rhyme/playground taunt reduplication but it has no particular requirement for the initial consonant as long as it's not P of course.

  30. John Huston said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 9:22 am

    Korean is full of vivid expressions (often with alliteration, rhyming and repetition) of the kinds mentioned by other contributors in other languages. Just two that come to mind at this late hour are —

    왁짝지걸 wak jak ji geol a "verbal adjective" (combined with han or haneun) describing a very noisy place or situation

    야단볍석 ya dan beop seok a noun for a noisy fracas or brouhaha


  31. 번하드 said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

    @John Huston:

    You're absolutely right about Korean's richness in this area.
    I found '왁자지껄' and '야단법석(惹端–)' with the meanings you described.
    I'm uncertain about your second example, but it seems related to '야단야단(惹端惹端)'
    which falls into a typical repetition pattern.
    Many of these are either 2 or 4 syllables and in the case of 4 syllables
    you will often see ABAB repetition or ABCB slightly varied repetition.

    A quick search only got me:

    mimetic words, examples from Korean in 3.1

    onomatopoeia, examples from Korean in 2.1

    mimetic words and onomatopoeia needed for TOPIK proficiency test
    see column 의성어/의태어

    But that area of the language is very rich, one phenomenon that really
    caught my eye is the existence on what I like to call "onomatopoeic isotopes".
    Imagine "hobbob" standing for standard hubbub, "hibbib" for hubbub caused
    by a small/light subject/object, and "hubbub" for the case of a big/heavy one.
    This is quite widespread.
    I really hope a native speaker can chime in here, as I'm only a midlevel learner of the language.

  32. Vulcan with a Mullet said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 1:17 am

    Possible association with "humbug"?

  33. maidhc said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 2:03 am

    Irish also has "ruaille buaille".

  34. maidhc said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 3:05 am

    Hugger-mugger, hotsy-totsy, hoity-toity, harem-scarem, Henny Penny, Heckle & Jeckle,
    higgledy-piggledy, hippy-dippy, hodge-podge, hokey-pokey, holey moley.
    Hullabaloo, hubbub, hoo boy, hambone hambone where you bin.
    Rootin-tootin, Tootin Totem (that's the name of a pizza place around here, not a drive-in despite the name), boogie woogie, fuddle duddle (favourite of Pierre Trudeau Sr.),
    Furry-Burry Creature (character on children's TV in Buffalo NY), legal (b)eagle, raggle-taggle,
    nitty-gritty, pell-mell, ticky-tacky, tittle-tattle, wibble-wobble.

  35. Doctor Science said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 10:42 am

    OT for this post, but not for the poster:

    Dr. Mair has used a hilarious acronym for the current kind of government in China–hilarious because it's long and unpronounceable. My search through the archives has been in vain, doubly frustrating because I get the feeling I read it within the past month or so (though the post was not necessarily recent).

    Can any of you jog my memory, preferably with a link?

  36. Christian Munk said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 12:25 pm

    H-b expressions are not too common in Danish, and I struggled to find examples (other than the loan “hokus pokus”). But I found two good examples:

    “Hulter til bulter” is a phrase used adverbially to mean “messily” or “haphazardly” (maybe it has a relation to “helter skelter”?).

    “Hist og pist” means “here and there”, but literally means something like “hence and gone”.

  37. reader_not_academe said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 12:27 pm

    hocus-pocus is an interesting one. respectable dictionaries mention the speculation about its origin, namely, that it's imitation latin for "hoc est enim corpus meum" from the catholic ritual.

    assuming that speculation is in some way true, i find it interesting that it's not some random other phrase that got lexicalized, but this particular one, which happens to conform to the rhyming reduplication and the h-b/p pattern. seems to be a case of apparent randomness that fits into a broader linguistic order when you squint at it from the right angle.

  38. abc said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 3:22 am

    This is a popular topic in the current linguistic research. Some of the phenomena are dubbed ideophones discussed in a recent review here:

    But in fact it is a broader issue of non-arbitrary morphophonological forms. In the Asian context such topics are discussed in this recent volume:

    And the English data are nicely discussed by Pawley in a paper on p. 273 here:

  39. David Marjanović said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 7:44 am

    In German, only Hokuspokus and holterdiepolter come to mind, and I know the latter only as a sound effect for e.g. rolling down stairs, not as a grammatically integrated word.

    Well, there's the robber Hotzenplotz, but that turns out to be a place name.

  40. AKA said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

    @Yvonne I always thought of a Schickimicki as someone who was ostentatiously fashionable… I heard it a lot when I lived in Munich.

  41. BZ said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 2:43 pm

    The funny thing about Hucus Pocus is that it somehow became "Fukus Pokus" (with an "F" in place of an "H") in Russian. From there, the word "fokus" came to mean "magic trick", with a host literal and figurative derivations. This despite the fact that "fokus" also means "focus" in its scientific meanings.

    I realize that Russian lacks an "h", but I've never heard of an "h" becoming an "f" in any other borrowings. Maybe the existence of the other meaning of "fokus" caused some sort of interference.

  42. Michele Sharik Pituley said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 4:51 pm

    @maidhc: “Tootin Totem (that's the name of a pizza place around here, not a drive-in despite the name)”

    Why would the name indicate a drive-in? *confused*

  43. Narmitaj said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 7:43 pm

    @BZ – "The funny thing about Hucus Pocus is that it somehow became "Fukus Pokus" (with an "F" in place of an "H") in Russian"

    Presumably this happened well before Hocus Pocus by Focus (the song "Hocus Pocus", 1971, by the Dutch band Focus). But if it happened afterwards, well, maybe there's your smokus gun!

    Mostly instrumental, but there lyrics:

    You can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4ouPGGLI6Q

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    April 9, 2019 @ 3:21 am

    MHC — I too had to think about that one but I then realised that one might "toot" (sound one's horn) to attract the attention of the order-taker in such an establishment. Not that I have ever visited one, of course — I prefer the more traditional method of park, enter, order, receive, leave and drive off.

  45. Bessel Dekker said,

    April 9, 2019 @ 4:04 pm


    Hoteldebotel: fatuous or infatuated (from Yiddish)
    Holle Bolle Gijs: children’s song figure “bol” (puffy) because he’s a glutton, “hol” (hollow) meaningless here, “Gijs” proper name
    Holderdebolder: head over heals, in confusion

  46. Rodger C said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 6:44 am

    Holy moley!

  47. Scott P. said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 2:31 pm

    There is also Hubba Bubba bubblegum.

  48. 번하드 said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 5:38 pm

    Finally one lonely H-b word in Korean came to my mind: 하품 (hapoom), meaning "yawn".
    There have to be more, but I'm at a loss about how to find them.

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